January 2016



Tragedy of the Commons

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A commons is a resource that is shared by a group of people. Historically, a commons has been a physical resource (for example, a land resource), but its definition has now expanded to a non-physical, man-made resource such as peer-to-peer information networks (Marttila, Botero 2013). Physical commons therefore relate to physical resources and their use (Seravalli 2014) and digital commons relate to certain aspects of the non-market networked information economy that are controlled and negotiated by social exchange and agreements. Networks here represent systems of human interactions that emphasize human action and structural patterns (Benkler 2011). Physical commons may also be further categorized into open commons (like oceans, air, highway system) and limited access commons (like pasture agreements for farmers), or regulated (like forests that have restrictions of use placed on them) and unregulated commons (like grazing pasture for farmers with no use restrictions) (Benkler 2006).

Garrett Hardin explored the impact of individual influence on disrupting a commons by arguing that selfish human behavior depletes common resources to the point of destroying the commons (hence the term Tragedy of the Commons). According to Hardin, privatization or governmental oversight are important to maintaining these resources through limitation of access (Hardin 1968). However, research in domains as varied as Design, Economics (Ostrom 1990), Law (Benkler 2006) and several others demonstrate the value of a perspective on human cooperation different from Hardin’s. Elinor Ostrom shows that the solution to the over-consumption problem with a commons is not just access limitation by external regulation as Hardin believed, but is instead the creation and stewardship of the right conditions for use and common governance (Ostrom 1990; Bauwens 2012). Self-governance and regulation, and not external oversight, are instrumental to preventing “the tragedy of the commons” (Ostrom 1990). The praxis in commoning also involves “cooperation (or pooling of common resources for group benefit), and community (defined as a group of people who coalesce around collective identity and collective action)” (De Angelis 2010).


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