Although Jessica Irvine doesn’t seem to realize it, this article could be summed as: property rights maximize societal and environmental outcomes and collectivism is a destructive force. The only time she nearly gets there she misapplies the tragedy of the commons to a global net benefit – bio-available carbon – instead viewing a beneficial by-product as “pollution”
Only one woman has ever been awarded the Nobel memorial prize in economics, and she died last week.
Elinor Ostrom, an American political economist at Indiana University, received the prize jointly with another economist in 2009 for her pioneering work on how societies manage their collective resources such as forests, water systems and fisheries.
As global despair mounts at the lack of progress achieved by world leaders at the Rio+20 summit this week, the themes of Ostrom’s work bear some revisiting.
Through a lifetime of boots-on empirical research, Ostrom meticulously catalogued examples – from irrigation systems in Nepal to Californian water management – of how communities manage common resources in a sustainable way.
Her work was largely a rejection of an influential paper, penned in 1968 by the American ecologist Garrett Hardin, titled ”The Tragedy of the Commons”. In it Hardin described how private individuals, acting from self-interest, would always overuse common resources and ultimately destroy them. The reasoning was that if you are a farmer grazing your sheep on common land, it will always be in your interest to put an extra sheep out to graze, even if it means that in the longer term, too much grass is eaten and cannot be regrown. This is the free rider problem. The individual farmer benefits, but to the detriment of all farmers in the longer term. The only solution, according to Hardin, was to divide and privatise common resources or have government impose management of them on local communities.
The world confronts a similar problem, but on a larger scale, with the use and abuse of the Earth’s atmosphere. If individuals see an opportunity to make a profit by emitting pollution, they will continue to free ride until atmospheric changes cause dangerous climate change, to the detriment of all. Traditional solutions include market pricing systems to internalise the cost of pollution or government intervention to control use of the atmosphere.