The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas


Adaptation and Natural Selection, Author: George C. Williams.
On the Origin of Species, Author: Charles Darwin.
The Major Transitions of Life, Authors: John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry.
The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language, Authors: John Maynard Smith.
Governing the Commons, Author: Elinor Ostrom.

By David Sloan Wilson – Starting with Elinor Ostrom’s thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met.

She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries;
  2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs;
  3. Collective choice arrangements;
  4. Monitoring;
  5. Graduated sanctions;
  6. Fast and fair conflict resolution;
  7. Local autonomy;
  8. Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance).

This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.”

Hunter-gatherer societies are famously egalitarian, not because everyone is nice, but because members of a group can collectively suppress bullying and other self-aggrandizing behaviors within their ranks – the defining criterion of a major evolutionary transition. With disruptive competition within groups held largely in check, succeeding as a group became the main selective force in human evolution. more>

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