Thursday, November 05, 2009

More on Sustainable Futures: Further thoughts on why the "Tragedy of the Commons" needn't be

I've posted on Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" before (and reprinted a money quote from the article linked in that post below), but reading Paul Robbins' excellent Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, I was reminded of recent Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom once again and came across this well-done article on her work and common property research in Forbes, of all places. Elizabeth Eaves writes:
That's where Elinor Ostrom comes in. While many economists continued to assume that collective action just didn't work, several decades ago the Indiana University, Bloomington, political scientist began to study when and why it did work. On Monday, her efforts won her the 2009 Nobel economics prize.

"What Ostrom showed was that a lot of ordinary, not very well educated people who'd never read about free rider problems basically developed institutional arrangements," says Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Groups of fishermen figured out how to limit their catch, while farmers collaborated on irrigation problems. "Sure there's a free-rider problem, but people turn around and find ways to solve it," Folbre says.

Continuing a theme I've read several times in recent weeks, Eaves goes on:

Why did other economists miss this part of the picture? "Economists didn't pay attention to ethnography," Folbre says--that is, they didn't observe actual people at work. "Why go out in the field when you have a nice theory?"
I have some respect for economics, or at least, the idea that the study of markets is a useful one, but the idea that where theory and reality conflict, reality is wrong is one repeatedly and disturbingly voiced.*

Going back to my previous post on this area, an extensive quote from Ian Angus's piece is appropriate here:
A Politically Useful Myth

The truly appalling thing about "The Tragedy of the Commons" is not its lack of evidence or logic -- badly researched and argued articles are not unknown in academic journals. What's shocking is the fact that this piece of reactionary nonsense has been hailed as a brilliant analysis of the causes of human suffering and environmental destruction, and adopted as a basis for social policy by supposed experts ranging from economists and environmentalists to governments and United Nations agencies.

Despite being refuted again and again, it is still used today to support private ownership and uncontrolled markets as sure-fire roads to economic growth.

The success of Hardin's argument reflects its usefulness as a pseudo-scientific explanation of global poverty and inequality, an explanation that doesn't question the dominant social and political order. It confirms the prejudices of those in power: logical and factual errors are nothing compared to the very attractive (to the rich) claim that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. The fact that Hardin's argument also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a bonus.

I think the concept of the inherent unsustainability of humans and our inability to create a better future (or simple extreme unlikelihood) falls rather into the same area, though not out of maliciousness of desire to maintain the status quo, at least not on D's part, to be sure. Rather, as I alluded to in my post on "Limits to Know(th)", I think the evidence and the science just don't line up so simply as to be able to say with any certainty that we can't pull this off (any more than to say with certainty that we can; my point is that the evidence is equivocal, so we may as well agitate for sustainable and equitable change presuming that it is possible, however likely or not it may be).

Ending off, I quote Robbins in regards to the Tragedy of the Commons, in the passage that inspired this post, and helps maintain my inspiration that the venality and doomedness of the human race has been greatly exaggerated. Like the reports of Mark Twain's death, it's too early to call, but unlike his death, it's not necessarily inevitable.


But empirical evidence compiled for the last three decades shows less support for [the Tragedy of the Commons model], and time and again evidence of collective stewardship appears in the management of resources ranging from fisheries from Maine to Turkey, pastures from Morocco to India, and forests from Madagascar to Japan. While "tragedy" theory suggested failure, the literature was filled with "exceptions", locally organized techniques, rules, and decision-making structures that organized extraction, defined user communities, and maintained harvests and yields. The empirical record on common property management is far too large to survey here, but the accumulated case material is impressive (see National Research Council 1986; Feeny et al. 1990; Burger and Gochfeld 1998)... Success of collective management, theorists maintained, is a result of the fact that such commons are not unowned (legally, res nullius but are in fact commonly held property (legally, res communes) (Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop 1975). Failure of collective management, by contrast, merely represents failures in the specific structure of rules that govern collective property... Recovery of sustainable management is a task of crafting new and better rules, not one of slicing up the commons into private bits, nor imposing strong-arm central authority (Ostrom 1990, 1992; Ostrtom et al. 1993; Hanna et al. 1996)..."

*From John DiNardo's review of Freakonomics:
"June ONeill, [then] Director of the Congressional Budget office, the agency charged with credibly assessing the effects of government policies, reminded [her] audience at an American Enterprise Institute meeting [about the effect of the minimum wage] that theory is also evidence.” [DiNardo's emphasis] A more ironic illustration from Deaton (1996): That evidence may have to be discarded in favor of “science” could hardly be better argued than in Nobel Laureate James Buchanans words in The Wall Street Journal: “no self-respecting economist would claim that increases in the minimum wage increase employment. Such a claim, if seriously advanced, becomes equivalent to a denial that there is even minimum scientific content in economics, and that, in consequence, economists can do nothing but write as advocates for ideological interests. Fortunately, only a handful of economists are willing to throw over the teaching of two centuries; we have not yet become a bevy of camp-following whores.”

David Harvey has similarly quoted location theorist/economist August Lösch as having said if "the model does not conform to reality, then it is reality that is wrong," although Harvey seemingly places this in the context of Lösch ascribing a normative role to theory, that is, science should serve to create a better, more equal and more rational world. Nonetheless, with the "Politically Useful Myth" of the tragedy of the commons in mind, Hardin was rather practicing the inverse, using "science" to maintain a status quo of rampant inequality.