Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptations

Summary of: Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptations

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Studying long-standing institutions for governing common pool resources at various scales can provide important lessons for governing new kinds of shared resources. In the end, institutionalizing effective processes for ongoing negotiation of the rules is more important than the rules themselves.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
MIT Press
Date
2003

Findings

  • "Instantly renewable" resources are distinguished from resources that require recovery time. For instantly renewable resources (spectrum, airplane landing slots, internet) overuse has little or no impact once overuse stops
  • Users who trust each other are more likely to cooperate to manage common resources.
  • Users who are connected by multiple issues and over a longer period of time can use issue linkages and reciprocity to induce cooperation.
  • Different forms of capital (physical, economic, political, and social) are intrinsically linked and one form can be used to create others.
  • In the end, a dynamic view of property rights is likely to be more appropriate to ensure sustainable and fair use of the resource than one that is static. Creating forums for negotiation and reallocation of such rights may be more important than laying down rigid rules and resource allocations.

Introduction

Studying long-standing institutions for governing common pool resources at various scales can provide important lessons for governing new kinds of shared resources. Privatization or government control are not the only choices. Existing regimes based on that dichotomy are being re-conceptualized. Creating an interdisciplinary common vocabulary should be a high priority.

We cannot simply transfer an institutional design that worked well for managing one type of common-pool resource in one region of the world to another type of resource in another region and expect to repeat the success.

Key characteristics for successful cooperation to manage commons:

  • small size of the user pool
  • stable and well-delineated resource boundaries
  • relatively small negative externalities
  • ability of resource users to monitor resource stocks and flows
  • moderate level of resource use (the resource must be neither over-abundant nor beyond recovery)
  • well-understood (by the users) dynamics of the resource

“Instantly renewable” resources are distinguished from resources that require recovery time. For instantly renewable resources (spectrum, airplane landing slots, internet) overuse has little or no impact once overuse stops. The problem is crowding rather than degrading the resource stock. The forgiving nature of instantly renewable resources yields greater willingness to experiment with new and innovative management. However, since the resource is resilient there is less incentive to take serious action.

Research has shown:

  • Users who trust each other are more likely to cooperate to manage common resources.
  • Users who are connected by multiple issues and over a longer period of time can use issue linkages and reciprocity to induce cooperation.

The external legal environment can deliberately or inadvertently promote or hinder cooperative self-management. Transferring responsibility to users close to the resource has been a successful strategy as long as the users still have access to funding and other tools.

Resource users will devise new institutions for managing that resource or change existing rules governing its use when the perceived benefits of the change in the rules exceed the costs associated with creating the rules and with the change of the resource use pattern. Social and financial capital do not necessarily lead to better resource management Technology enables users to monitor the resource and each other more effectively and at lower cost. Technology also allows the development of alternative resources that can affect resource use.

Eight principles for managing commons:

  1. rules are devised and managed by resource users
  2. compliance with rules is easy to monitor
  3. rules are enforceable
  4. sanctions are graduated
  5. adjudication is available at low cost
  6. monitors and other officials are accountable to users
  7. institutions to regulate a given common-pool resource may need to be devised at multiple levels
  8. procedures exist for revising rules

Conclusion

Central governance and privatization only lead to deterioration of shared resources and communities, as well as to the failure of governance at the coarser scale. This implies that the organization at the macro-level is the deciding factor. However, we have seen sustainable management of natural resources over years and centuries despite macro-level restructuring, therefore the initial implication does not tell the whole story.

The authors set out to answer:

  1. What new developments challenge traditional common property institutions and how do they adapt?
  2. How is the increasing scale of human action affecting governance of shared resources?
  3. Can we make progress in institutional design?

Some lessons learned:

  1. The increased interconnection of the biophysical across scales and institutions across levels requires adaptation to change at multiple levels.
  2. The interests of resource users at multiple levels often conflict.
  3. Allocation of resource rights is a political process.
  • Access to this political process is limited by the structure of the macro institutions and also by the human, political, and social capital available to each group of actors.
  • More open political systems and more interconnected economies provide a larger set of adapt strategies.
  • Adopted policy solutions are incremental and not linear.
  • Our terminology needs refinement. Words like “local”, “regional”, and “landscape” erroneously imply that these are nested entities. We still lack conceptual tools with which to integrate the biophysical and the sociopolitical across multiple scales. For example, mobile resources (like fish) require complex polycentric management. Too-decentralized governance can serve as an impediment to meeting needs of a broader society.

    Perceptions of fairness reinforce a climate of trust. Success of any mechanism relies on trust to enable cooperation. When participants do not come face to face with the consequences of their actions they feel no responsibility for them. Different forms of capital (physical, economic, political, and social) are intrinsically linked and one form can be used to create others, but social capital can lead to collective action for or against the commons.

    In the end, a dynamic view of property rights is likely to be more appropriate to ensure sustainable and fair use of the resource than one that is static. Creating forums for negotiation and reallocation of such rights may be more important than laying down rigid rules and resource allocations.