Debunking “The Tragedy of the Commons”
by Dr. Erik Nordman  /  August 11, 2021

[Edited excerpt from The Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom by Erik Nordman]

“Lobsters were once so abundant along the coast of New England that Native Americans, and later, European colonists, would pluck them from the tidal pools along the rocky coast. Lobsters spoil quickly. If you wanted to eat lobster, you had to dine where the lobsters were. All this changed, however, when the lobster canneries opened in the mid-1800s. So-called “dinner lobsters” need to be big enough for a meal. That also means the lobsters are old enough to have reproduced. The canners, on the other hand, bought lobsters of all sizes. For them, there was no difference in quality between small and large lobsters. Maine, with the support of the dinner lobster trade, eventually set a legal minimum lobster size. Without a supply of small, cheap lobsters, the canneries closed or moved to Canada. However, the lobster harvesters had not yet developed the conservation ethic for which they are now known.

One researcher described this era as “an industry of pirates,” as the conservation laws, like the minimum size, were flouted by harvesters and rarely enforced by officials. They scrubbed the eggs off of reproducing lobsters and sold short lobsters illegally. Lobster populations continued to decline through the Great Depression. “The tragedy of the commons” was unfolding along the coast of Maine. Biologist Garrett Hardin popularized the phrase in his 1968 essay by the same name, in which he proposed that shared resources, or commons, were destined to be overused. Whether a shared pasture, fishery, forest, or other resource, no user had an incentive to restrain their use. In fact, the incentives forced resource users to take as much as they could before the resource ran out. According to Hardin, only two interventions could avoid the tragedy of the commons: privatizing the resource or regulations imposed by government. The people, he thought, were powerless to resolve the situation themselves. In the early 20th century, Maine’s lobster fishery was a commons, and the lobster harvesters were racing to catch every last one.

In the midst of this economic and ecological crisis, Maine’s legislature passed a landmark conservation law: the “double gauge” law. A double gauge law implements both a minimum and a maximum size for lobsters. The minimum size allows lobsters sufficient time to grow to reproductive size. The maximum size enables the largest, most prolific egg-producers to keep spawning and protect the breeding stock. A maximum size was controversial then, and remains so today within the scientific and regulatory communities. But in the desperate days of the Great Depression, the legislators were willing to give it a try. The law, one of the few double gauge conservation laws anywhere, remains a cornerstone of lobster management in Maine. The state government’s intervention was critical, but Hardin’s prediction that only privatization or government regulations could save a commons like the lobster fishery was incomplete. The lobster’s recovery was not only due to government regulations. By the mid-1900s, something also changed in the lobstering community. Instead of fighting the regulators and skirting the laws, the harvesters began advocating for more conservation measures.

After 40 years of debate, Maine established its first trap limit in 1995 and revised it in 2000. Perhaps more importantly, the harvesters themselves fostered a culture that respects the rules even when enforcement is difficult and a harvester is unlikely to be caught. Jonathan Labaree of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute told me, “I think one of the things that set Maine apart is both the maximum size, which has been very important, but also this real strong adhering to the protection of fertile females.” Labaree noted that harvesters largely have strong conservation ethic. “Most fishermen are pretty conservation-minded, frankly. The last thing they want is to be the one to catch the last fish.” Harvester Greg Griffin agreed. “Lobstermen exercise fantastic husbandry practices,” Griffin said. Lobsters are a local fishery, unlike, for example, shrimp or cod, which swim in the open ocean. Lobsters migrate from deep water to shallow harbors each year. But once they are in the harbors, they mostly stay there. As Griffin put it, “You take care of your lobsters, and they will take care of you.”

In addition to formal laws, lobster harvesters organize themselves based on their home territories, usually the harbor in which they work, to protect their resource. These “lobster gangs” or “harbor gangs” develop informal, unwritten rules about who can set lobster traps and where they can set them. The lobster gangs enforce these rules when they are broken. Anthropologist James Acheson, who wrote several books on lobster harvesters, noted that “Gossip, slander, and ostracism are usually quite successful in forcing people into line with the expectations of the community.” The combination of informal, but well-enforced, rules at the local level and the conservation laws at the state and federal levels have helped Maine’s lobster fishery become one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world. The fishery recovered from a period of low-level harvests in the early 20th century to record harvests in the early 21st.

The management regime was a critical part of that recovery. A number of other factors played a role as well, notably the lack of predators like cod and the warming of the Gulf of Maine. This last factor may be the lobster harvesters’ greatest challenge in the coming years. Warmer water brings the lobsters in to shore earlier and helps them grow more quickly. But lobsters prefer cool water. It’s already getting too warm for lobsters off the coast of New York’s Long Island and Rhode Island. The Gulf of Maine is warming fast—faster than 99 percent of the ocean. If the Gulf of Maine gets too warm, lobsters will likely head north to Canada. That would spell doom for Maine’s lobster industry and the coastal towns that depend on it.

For the second half of the 20th century, the lobster gangs and resource managers were working with a growing lobster population. In that context, the lobster gangs successfully established and maintained territories, enforced informal and formal rules about sizes and trap limits, and developed ways to expel rule-breakers. The harbor gangs adapted to changing conditions—ecological, economic, and social. Lobster harvesters are a resilient lot. They are fiercely independent, yet willing to work together to overcome challenges. The lobster gangs will respond to the ecological, economic, and social changes, as they have for decades, but exactly how is unclear. If the lobster boom does go bust, how will the lobster gangs respond? Will neighboring gangs fight over the best remaining territories? Whatever the case, lobster harvesters will need to develop new rules if they are going to adapt to the anticipated changes in lobster habitat and populations.

The mid-1980s were a watershed in political science and the study of the commons—shared resources like lobsters that are prone to overuse. There was a vibe that something was happening in Bloomington, Indiana, where Elinor (Lin) and Vincent Ostrom, along with their colleagues at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy analysis, had created a distinctive perspective in political science. One colleague dubbed this perspective “The Bloomington School” after Indiana University’s campus where the Ostroms worked. The Bloomington School of political economy distinguished itself from other traditions by its insistence that people, although fallible, can govern themselves by working together and learning from mistakes. It was a product of both Vincent’s interest in the philosophy of governance and Lin’s data-driven empiricism. Theory influenced the design of experiments. Experimental results and case studies from the field in turn modified the theory. Theory and practice came together like a braided alpine stream, informing one another and separating to come together once again.

Hardin’s theory of the commons was insufficient to explain the multitude of civil society institutions, like harbor gangs and groundwater associations, that emerged to manage common-pool resources. Elinor Ostrom worked with other social scientists who documented these instances. The data were piling up. But what was the theory that explained such a diversity of cases? At the 1985 National Academy of Science panel, Lin Ostrom compared the group’s task of describing common pool resource management systems as the challenge faced by early biologists. For centuries, biologists developed their own systems to classify organisms. Each was useful in its own limited way. But when biologists agreed to adopt the hierarchical system of Carolus Linnaeus, knowledge was able to advance quickly.

Similarly, the study of commons was also in its infancy. Scientists from all different disciplines—political science, anthropology, economics, sociology—were trying to organize and classify the commons. Like knowing that mammals have fur or birds have feathers, classifying commons would tell something of the resource users’ behavior. It would describe both the incentives that drive users’ behavior and the outputs. However, it wasn’t even clear if there was an organizing principle. Ecologists, economists, and sociologists did not share a common vocabulary. Did the rules of Maine’s harbor gangs really have something in common with Los Angeles water districts and Turkish fisheries? If so, how could people describe them consistently across disciplines?

The key to understanding the commons and their management, Ostrom wrote, was learning how the managing organizations are matched with the resources. Ostrom also wanted to know how these organizations persist and what factors contribute most to sustaining the commons. The National Academy panel’s work describing and categorizing various types of commons suggested to Ostrom that a few factors might influence how an organized group of users might sustain their resource. For example, there must be clear rules that people agree upon. Those rules can be enforced both by officials and through social means from other users. The organizations are adaptive to changes. These factors were Ostrom’s first attempt at creating a theory to understand how commons could be sustained. Ostrom’s work, influenced by her anthropologist and sociologist colleagues, put the resource users front and center. Too often the assumption was that the resource users don’t know anything and it is up to the government to impose rules. This colonial attitude was not universally true, and was often harmful.

Sometimes, resource users did have their own ways of managing their commons. But central governments did not always seek the input of local users. Ostrom listened to the resource users. She did not assume that community members were trapped in the tragedy of the commons. Instead, Ostrom wanted to learn from them. What she learned was that  “the government” isn’t the only way to manage a common-pool resource. Neither is private property the only way. In between these extremes are communities—large and small, formal and informal—and the institutions they use to govern their resources.

Community is nowhere to be found in Hardin’s tragedy of the commons. Resource-using communities are not simply amalgamations of individuals. Communities themselves have characteristics and properties that emerge from the daily conversations and engagements of their residents. The concept of self-governance was central to both Lin and Vincent’s work and a key tenet of the Bloomington School of political economy. Vincent especially felt that respectful contestation, listening, and being open to changing views were essential to self-government. And self-government by these principles made the tragedy of the commons less likely.”



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