How do we preserve what we share?

Elinor Ostrom’s 8 ‘rules’ for successful commons management

“Social relationships are both the foundation and the theme of the human condition: We are born into relationships, we live our lives in relationships with others, and when we die, the effects of our relationships survive in the lives of the living.”
– Ellen Berscheid (1999)

Illustration Lilly Paris West

In a recent show at Auckland’s ST PAUL St Gallery, How to Live Together, curator Balamohan Shingade asked attendees: “What is the intimacy we must develop to create a community? What is the distance we must maintain to retain our solitude?” Balancing these tasks is what living with neighbours is all about. Go too far in one direction and you’re stuck in a cult. Take the other extreme and you end up on your own, isolated and devoid of help. As the saying goes, no one’s an island– it doesn’t matter how much Ayn Rand you read, our interdependence is inescapable, and individuals just aren’t as effective as cooperating groups.

Cooperation remains a central human task, from team sports to business, construction to politics, neighbourhood living and the maintenance of the shared life system on which we all depend. But here’s the rub: in any cooperative situation, there is a tension between working for the group or working for yourself. In a group context, this really means ‘free-riding’: avoiding the costs and/or risks associated with the collective task… but still gaining in the spoils. Sounds pretty good, right? The problem, of course, is that such selfish behaviour can affect the whole group. While free-riding is the ‘best’ outcome for any single individual, it depends wholly on the generosity of others. If enough people free-ride, cooperation is eroded and the group’s ability to deliver big wins breaks down. In the competitive shit storm that free-riding can make, everyone loses. By way of contrast, if a group can find ways to weed out and/or regulate free riders at a sufficiently high rate, then cooperation is sustained and all group members enjoy the benefits of the greater successes associated with acting as a group.

Finding ways to resolve these dilemmas is argued to have played a central role in the evolution of humans. Like us, our deep ancestors were social beings, and the challenges of small group living acted as a strong selector for cooperative behaviour. For collective tasks like hunting, foraging, child-raising and building shelter, groups that could work together were able to prosper and reproduce, while those that couldn’t were forced to try to survive on their own. In the recent book by social scientist Nicholas Christakis, Blueprint, he argues that these historical realities have shaped human behaviour over time, providing modern humans with a collection of tendencies priming us to be cooperative, socially-oriented beings. However, while the evolutionary pressures of thousands of generations of selection provides us with a ‘blueprint’, there are any number of factors which can interrupt ‘construction’. Which is to say, Christakis’ point isn’t one of genetic determinism, but rather a call to agency, to engage our best. We each– for very real and inescapably useful reasons– have the capacity to cooperate and become part of a greater whole, but we can’t achieve such goals alone. Our genetic tendencies work in concert with both social (face-to-face) and cultural (group-level) factors, of which we too are a part.

Perhaps the most famous theory of social and cultural factors affecting cooperation is ‘the tragedy of the commons’. As Gareth Hardin famously described it, ‘tragedy of the commons’ refers to a situation where a number of competing individuals have access to a resource held ‘in common’– that is, where no one individual has authority over any of the others, for example, a number of famers grazing cows on a shared piece of land. As the story goes, in such a situation, each farmer tries to get the most out of the land, to– you know– ‘maximise their profits,’ grazing more and more and more cows. But the land can only take so much. Each Fonterra-member dairy farmer loads more cows until the ecosystem’s limit is hit– then the system collapses, leaving both cows and farmers destitute.

While Hardin’s example turns on a physical resource, the same process applies to any collective task: individual, non-accountable greed collapses commonly-held resources. Each individual thinks they’ll be the one to get ahead, but in the end, they all end up with nought.
The resource that ends up collapsed might not just be an ecosystem, but the trust within a specific group— the trust that, in some senses at least, actually makes them a group. So, to return to (and paraphrase) Balamohan’s questions: how do we live well as a group?

The tragedy of the commons is such a famous yarn that’s it’s right up there with Mark Fischer’s “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Fortunately, not everyone agrees. While it’s easy to think of a time when group cooperation has decayed, the inevitability Hardin claimed just isn’t true. When (Western) researchers finally took the time to get out ‘in the field’, they found what people actually living this shit have known since forever: there are many ways to sustainably manage resources, to live in a form of balance with both each other and the mother we’ve divided off as ‘nature’. Tragedy is always a risk; no system is stable forever. But such cooperative enterprises can and are being sustained all over the world.

“What is on the ‘other’ side of the cut is not separate from us… Ethics is not about right response to the Other, but about responsibility and accountability for the lively relationalities of becoming of which ‘we’ are a part.”
– Karen Barad (2008)

In the work that was to win her the 1990 Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom distilled eight principles or ‘rules’ for successful commons management, independently conceived of, passed down or congregated on by peoples as diverse as Turkish fishermen, Californian farmers, and Japanese peasants. In contrast to those who argue for the necessity of privatisation and top-down control, Ostrom’s work demonstrates how successful commons management actually emerges from the bottom-up, provided certain democratic conditions are met. Groups that successfully manage their commons incorporate the following:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries: for both group membership and the resource, setting out who is entitled to use it, and what their rights and obligations are.
  2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs: a technical way of saying fairness– group members need to all pull their weight, and if some have to do extra work, then this needs to be rewarded. Both unearned inequality and imposed equivalence undermine cooperation.
  3. Inclusive, democratic decision-making: individuals who are involved in the process of rule creation are much more likely to follow them than if they are imposed from outside. Further, group members have a far more intimate knowledge of their local circumstances, and are able to respond flexibly to changes in a way outside regulators aren’t.
  4. Monitoring agreed-upon behaviour: free-riding is always a risk, but groups that formalise responsibility for detecting transgressions are able to minimise its impact.
  5. Graduated sanctions: groups that are too heavy handed quickly dissolve, while those who fail to respond are easily exploited. Best outcomes occurred when initial transgressions were gently corrected but ongoing transgressions met with increasingly heavy sanctions and ultimately, exclusion.
  6. Fast and fair conflict resolution mechanisms: conflict is an inescapable aspect of human group living, but groups that formalised collectively agreed fair procedures for speedy dispute resolution were able to avoid the chronic infighting which collapses group trust.
  7. Local autonomy: groups must have the authority to organize their own affairs in accordance with their own processes. Outside interference limits the power of the collective to self-determine and thus undermines the willingness to follow the rules that were collectively made under principle 3.
  8. Appropriate relations with other groups: no group exists in isolation. Those that do best are accorded the local autonomy required under principle 7 but also able to connect to other groups and other layers of social organisation when necessary. For example, the European Union’s principle of subsidiarity recognises that governance tasks should fall to the most local scale where possible, but also acknowledges that some issues require agreement at a higher level of governance.

Ostrom’s principles might seem obvious in hindsight, but the common sense they capture is far from universally applied. As evolutionary psychologist David Sloan Wilson argues, while Ostrom’s rules appear necessary for collective undertakings, there are a number of different requirements for group success depending on the area in which it takes place. And while the first six principles refer to processes within cooperating groups, the final two focus on relationships between groups– further emphasising the need for holistic, multi-level approaches to social change.

Ultimately, Ostrom’s work shows us that there is no single ‘solution’ to the challenges of human group living. Rather, what is required is the combination of presence, accountability, and democratic consensus captured by her principles, not ‘solving’ our social dilemmas, but creating the conditions that enable us to stand up and meet each other as equals. In doing so, we begin to negotiate the tightrope of intimacy and independence inherent to all relationships, acknowledging that such interactions can’t be fixed in any final sense, but require presence, humility, a willingness to risk oneself; to commit and return, to make homes, friendships, gardens and meals: to play an infinite game.

Further reading:

Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
David Sloan Wilson, The View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (Penguin Random House, 2019).
Christopher Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society (Little, Brown & Co., 2019).