Yesterday I caught a butterfly. I put it in a jar and sealed the lid. Today it was dead. Any elementary school child could show me my error. I forgot the ventilation. All alone in the jar, my butterfly sucked up the oxygen without any plant companions to complete the cycle i.e. through photosynthesis convert the butterfly’s CO2 breath into oxygen again.

But what entitlement, if any, does my butterfly have to the air? If tomorrow you catch a butterfly, will yours be just as, more, or less, entitled to the air as my butterfly? Because my butterfly was there first does yours get only what's left over from mine? Allocating each butterfly a portion of air didn't work out well. Perhaps an external arbitrator could handle the distribution of oxygen? But how would the external arbitrator enforce their allocation choices and would they have sufficient information from outside to make those decisions?

From a technical perspective it is difficult to answer this question because the common good, air, is rivalrous and non-excludable. Rivalrous because the air breathed by one butterfly is subtracted from the supply and no longer exists for the other. Non-excludable because one butterfly cannot prevent the other butterfly from consuming the resource. The question is also challenging from a moral perspective. Why should one butterfly have more entitlement to the air than another, or than those that will come in the future? Probably there is plenty of air to support both butterflies, and anyway, as pollinators they fertilize their fair share of CO2 loving flowers.

So, let's release the butterflies [1] and raise the stakes. What if instead, I want to drive a gas-guzzling truck? And you feel moved to cut down a forest to create a grazing pasture for your cattle. The fossil fuel (a non-renewable resource) I burn driving my truck will add significantly more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than a butterfly. And your grazing pasture will result in fewer trees to absorb the carbon dioxide - not to mention all the biodiversity you'll knock out - ya big jerk.

Okay, I'm not going to name names but this is getting out of hand. Let's zoom into to an example with fewer variables.

Imagine a field bounded by ten houses. The field is shared by its neighbors who each use it to graze their sheep. The pasture can support twenty sheep (2 sheep per household) but each additional sheep risks overgrazing. Will the group coordinate to keep the resource usage at or below its renewal rate? Or will they graze too many sheep leading to its demise?

Garret Hardin proposed a similar pasture in his 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons" [2]. As foreshadowed in the title, Hardin theorizes the pasture will be destroyed because each household receives the exclusive benefit of grazing an additional sheep but realizes only a fraction of the cost of overgrazing. Therefore, because the benefit always outweighs the cost, it is in the rational interest of each individual to graze another sheep. This presumption, which dates back to Aristotle and holds that that which is held collectively will eventually be destroyed, is frequently employed to justify privatization of shared resources, for example, water.

In 2009 Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics [3] [4] for her work analyzing the capacity of individuals to self organize in order to govern the appropriation of common-pool resources. Her theories of collective action contrast starkly with the Tragedy of the Commons. In her 1990 book, Governing the Commons [5], Ostrom shows that although the theoretical expectation is that individuals’ self interests compel them to destroy commonly held resources, observation of real world examples reveals a different story. In a meta- analysis of common pool resource case studies from around the world, she found that frequently people develop systems to cooperatively and sustainably share resources. In her research she strove to understand why some communities successfully manage common pool resources and others fail. Each case is unique, but are there factors in common which we can learn from and expand to other commons?

To illustrate how a common pool resource might be allocated without resorting to markets, privatization, or government/external intervention, let's consider an example discussed by Ostrom in Governing the Commons. A fishing community of about 100 fishers in Alanya, Turkey formed a system for equitably sharing fishing access. Competition for the best spots was resulting in, at times, violent conflict, increased production costs, and uncertainty about the harvest potential of each boat. After 10 years of trial and error, the community arrived at the following solution. In September each year a list of all eligible fishers is compiled. The fishers decide on a set of locations that are spaced such that they don't interfere with the yield of neighboring sites. A copy of this list is filed at the Mayor's office. The fishing season is September to May; in September a lottery assigns each fishing boat a location to start. From September to January, everyday each fisher moves east to the next location. From January to May, each fisher moves west to the next location.

In this system each fisher has equal chances to fish at the best spots. They know when they will be fishing at the best spots, allowing them to prepare and arrive bright and early on their day. If another fisher attempts to cheat the system by going to a prime spot out of turn, they'll likely be caught. In such an event the 'in turn' fisher would have the support of the community in defending their rights because they'd desire the same support when their turn comes around. Submitting the list to the Mayor adds legitimacy to the system, however the enforcement and designation of the spots is achieved by the fishers who have the local knowledge to optimize the fishing locations each season.

The title of this inaugural post is "Namesake". Cycling the Commons -- Governing the Commons, perhaps you note the similarity. An essential contribution of Ostrom was to reframe the expectations regarding how individuals behave in collective action scenarios. Asserting that most collective action inquiries begin with an 'overly pessimistic view of individuals capacity to restructure their own interdependent situations', she begins with two alternative presumptions. One - that appropriation and provision problems confronted by appropriators vary in structure across different settings based on the values of underlying parameters. And two - it is necessary for appropriators to shift across different arenas and levels of analysis.

A key ambition of this project is to recognize the abundance and variety of solutions to our untamed environmental and socio-economic pursuits. And akin to Ostrom, set aside the presumption that the market is the most adept arbitrator of resources. To that end, the project’s goal is to seek ideas in the wisdom of indigenous cultures, biomimicry and ingenuity spurred by hardship and/or unbridled idealism.

Ostrom focused on small scale, local common-pool resources such as fisheries and forest management, but commons are not exclusively small. In fact, one of the largest commons is the earth itself. The planet and her constituent parts, the oceans, forests, biodiversity, the atmosphere and the like, are all commons. The question of how we equitably appropriate and steward these commons amongst ourselves as human beings, and as citizens of the greater ecological community now and across future generations, is essential.

Ostrom limited the scope of Governing the Commons to appropriation problems, but much of her research can also be considered in provision commons. A provision commons is the product of the contributions of community members to create a resource that is greater than what one could achieve individually. The Linux Operating System, an open source project, is dynamic yet functionally stable and comprehensive because of the contributions and rapid feedback it receives from a worldwide community of developers and users. Wikipedia, correspondingly, is an agile, exhaustive, and reliable resource because it's information is crowd sourced by a community.

A tendency when discussing shared resources is to slide in a territorial direction. The "developed" world is largely a product of an extractive and petroleum fueled past and present. Don't countries who haven't gone through that process yet, have a right to the same disregard for the global commons? And does considering future generations require me to sacrifice the comfortable life I enjoy today?

I don't see that it needs to be a sacrifice or that the example set by “developed” countries is necessarily a model worth repeating. Cooperation can be a little slippery, even appear impossible, but the results can be spectacular. What if the priorities championed by our culture and values elevated generosity over savvy business sense? What if instead of an hour long commute and displaced anger at those ahead of you in line at the grocery store, a fifteen minute bike ride and a few neighborly pleasantries with the grocery clerk was all that separated us from quality time with friends and family, after short but satisfying work days? What if headlines debating how to pay for healthcare fell by the wayside? Because, one, we realized that the peace of mind achieved by knowing our own health concerns are paid for is weakened by the knowledge that others, in who's places we could easily find ourselves, are struggling without care. And, two because recognizing the value of cultivating our alimentation in harmony with nature leads to health care based in high quality food and compassion for the mind and body rather then medicine to treat the ailments caused by the medicine itself. I think, like Ostrom, the trick is to investigate with an alternative set of expectations, including that quality of life will change -- for the better -- with compassion for each other and nature.

  1. What kind of monster imprisons butterflies in jars anyway? ↩︎

  2. Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, VOL. 162, pp.1243-1248. ↩︎

  3. The prize was was awarded 50 - 50 to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson ↩︎

  4. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2009. Nobel Media AB 2019. Fri. 26 Apr 2019. ↩︎

  5. Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press. ↩︎