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90 of 93 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2008
Elinor Ostrom's Governing the Commons is a wonderful introduction to the world of "common pool resources," a.k.a. CPRs. Technicalities aside, a CPR is a resource that grows over time but can be harvested by more than one person. The classic example of a CPR is the English grazing commons, popularized in Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons." Forests, fisheries, and smog-free air are also good examples.

In her book, Ostrom takes an ethnographic approach to studying the management and mismanagement of CPRs. The key question for managing such commons is sustainability. Without some kind of enforceable agreement among those who would harvest a CPR, the resource will rapidly be depleted and possibly destroyed. Ostrom argues that good collective management can arise naturally from communities of people with a mutual interest in the sustainability of commons. In a series of detailed case studies, she lays out conditions ("design principles") that seem to allow -- or prevent -- the good governance of the CPR in question.

Once you've seen these design principles, they seem to pop up everywhere. "Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions" sounds a lot like the idea of local adaptation in the diffusion of innovations literature. "Monitoring" sounds like the role middle managers play in corporations. "Minimal rights to organize" sounds like the First Amendment.

Overall, Ostrom's book is an open-ended classic. It provides a great description of common pool resources through the lens of ethnographic case studies, plus a framework for looking at CPR problems in general. Ostrom never advances of specific theory of governance. Instead, she lays out many interesting and suggestive examples and principles. The field of CPR research has expended in many directions since Ostrom started it -- it's worth going back to the source to see where it all began.

Hints on how to read this book:

* To really motivate your reading, alternate chapters with Jared Diamond's Collapse. (But skim Collapse; it can be tedious.) Reading about how mismanagement of common pool resources led to the failure of entire civilizations will put an edge on your curiosity about how we can do better.

* As you read Governing the Commons, play the "Is a [blank] a CPR?" game. Switch on a radio to any news program. As soon as the topic becomes clear, mute the radio and ask yourself if the situation can be described as a commons. (The sub-prime bailout? Presidential elections? Somali piracy?) Odds are the answer is yes. It doesn't have to be a natural resource to be a common pool resource -- this analytical frame is extremely handy.

* If you're a scientist, don't read Ostrom looking for a clear, falsifiable theory. She never gives one. Instead, she describes a broad framework for considering the interaction between environment and government. It's a great seedbed of ideas -- but those ideas will need to be cultivated before they can be tested.

* Ask yourself about scaling cooperative management. Unfortunately, Ostrom never tackles this problem. She never gives much thought to whether what works in small communities can be scaled to the level of nations or the world. She can't -- ethnography simply can't cover that much ground. Consequently, "scaling" remains (even after 20 years) one of the great unanswered questions of collective governance.

PS -- If you figure the scaling problem out, please do us all a favor and fix global carbon emissions.
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41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2007
Ostrom attempts to refute the belief that only through state and or market-centered controls can commonly pooled resources (CPRs) be effectively governed. Ostrom writes, "Communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time" (p. 1). Governing the Commons sets out to discover why some groups are able to effectively govern and manage CPRs and other groups fail. She tries to identify both the internal and external factors "that can impede or enhance the capabilities of individuals to use and govern CPRs."

The first section of the book examines both state-controlled and privatization property rights regimes, and illustrates failures in both regimes; namely, that central authorities often fail to have complete accuracy of information, have only limited monitoring capabilities, and possess a weak sanctioning reliability. As such, a centralized governing body may actually govern the commons inaccurately and make a bad situation worse. In the case of privatized property rights regimes, Ostrom illustrates two main points: 1) it assumes that property is homogenous and any division of property will be equitable; and 2) privatization will not work with non-stationary property (fisheries, for example).

After discussing the state-controlled and privatization property rights regimes, Ostrom attempts examine the causes of successful CPR governance, and the catalysts which lead to failure. Being part of the "new institutionalist" school, Ostrom seeks to examine the rules, structures, and frameworks within the various CPR governance structures. Ostrom has discovered a number of "design principles" within the successful CPR governance cases. These principles include: 1) a clear definition of boundaries, 2) monitors who either are appropriators of the resource or accountable to the appropriators, 3) graduated sanctions, 4) mechanisms controlled by the appropriators used to mediate conflict and when necessary, change the rules, 5) a congruence between the rules used and the local conditions.

In other words, Ostrom suggests that these "design principles," form a cooperative institutional structure. If the correct institutions are in place, the players will see cooperation as the best means to gain optimal outcomes. These mechanisms create a confidence between players that defections will be minimal, and those that do defect will be sanctioned accordingly. Additionally, the institutional structures create an environment in which resources are distributed in such a way that all (or at least most) players benefit. As such, many of these institutional structures must be accompanied by a good deal of trust between players. This can only be developed over time and is most likely to succeed when the number of players in the CPR is reasonably small.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on December 29, 2006
"Governing the Commons" has become a classic, not only within the literature of political science, but more broadly throughout the social sciences. In the book, Elinor Ostrom argues brilliantly and compelling for a third way of avoiding Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons," in addition to privatization (conversion of the commons to private property) or government regulation (conversion of the commons to public property). Though numerous examples, Ostrom demonstrates how users of common property resources have managed, in various places around the world, to sustainably manage those resources through local, self-regulation. In other words, common property regimes can avoid the "tragedy of the commons."

Ostrom recognizes that common property management regimes do not always work. Indeed, the seem to fail as often as they succeed. To explain why this is the case, and to help predict the likelihood of success or failure, Ostrom develops an elaborate and very useful model of common property success/failure. In the 15 years since she published "Governing the Commons," that model has not been significantly improved by other scholars. Her book remains as current and important today, as it was when she first published it in 1990. It is required reading for all social scientists, indeed anyone, interested in resource conservation and property systems.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2002
Ostroms' book covers a variety of cases where allocational difficulties arise. She employs sound economic reasoning in analyzing a number of cases where ordinary property rights enforcment is difficult. This book illustrates how vital institutional arrangements are in managing natural resources. Self-described environmentalists should read this book to see how many of the problems that concern them can actually get solved. The history in this book is made interesting through the application of economic concepts. This is not light reading, but it surely is interesting- for serious readers.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2009
I am surprised that there's little review activity going on for this book, even though the author has won the "fake nobel" prize (i.e. the "price in memory of alfred nobel" for economy). Regardless of what one thinks about the fake nobel, the author is certainly someone whose achievements deserve recognition. This book is a pedagogical summary of the important work that she's done in relation to "Common Pool Resources".

It is written in an accurate and scientific style that never falls into the jargon trap. This gives a vivid impression of the author as someone open minded and keeping her thinking clear and focused on the facts.

After an introduction on her intentions and method, she presents the so called "tragedy of the commons" (and its close kin, the "prisoner's dilemna") as a situation where theoretical thinking sees central intervention as the only way to break the (self)destructive behaviour predicted and often observed: everyone tries to appropriate as much as they can get away from common resources until those resources collapse and everyone becomes worse off. She then calls attention to several field situations where individuals have been able to organize themselves to avoid falling into this trap without external intervention. The situations described are as diverse as mountain terrain in Switzerland, irrigation land in Spain and the Philippines or even fisheries in Turkey. Ostrom provides a detailed description of the salient features of these institutions before highlighting the common ground and the differences. She points out that these examples have institutions that have been stable for a long time and that we're therefore unsure about the process through which the institutions themselves were created.

She then turns to more recent examples of successful institutions managing CPR where information is available regarding the institutional development that led to the current situation. The key examples are water management institutions in California and a project to improve local irrigation communities in Sri Lanka. She finally contrasts successful institutions with failing ones, with a view to identify whether factors that may have been thought of as being factors of success may not actually be irrelevant.

The overall message of the book is that it is possible for local communities to take care of themselves and to efficiently manage CPR. It is not easy though and certain type of government intervention actually makes the matter worse. Likewise privatization is also not a one size fits all solution. So she's basically highlighting the need to consider each situation on its own, without ideological glasses. She provides a framework to analyze each specific case, but certainly avoids over-generalization.

The world needs more people like Ostrom, (i.e. lucid thinkers genuinely interested to understand what goes on). Too bad the typical social "scientist" seems to be more interested to bend the facts to fit to his theories and ideologies.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2010
Elinor Ostrom's "Governing the Commons" can be divided into several segments. First, an introduction to traditional theory regarding the management of Common Pool Resources. This is primarily based on the choice between privatization or socialization. Second, she presents her theory of Common Pool Resources (Why they succeed or fail). Third, she describes case studies regarding Common Pool Resources that clearly work, mostly work, and have largely failed. Fourth, she finishes the book with a overarching chapter summing up her theory with a call for further research. The work takes an interdepartmental approach at analyzing Common Pool Resources.

Her theory stresses a series of important characteristics that will determine whether a Common Pool Resource succeeds or fails.
1. Clearly defined boundaries
2. Congruence between appropriation
3. Collective-choice arrangements
4. Effective monitoring
5. Graduated sanctions
6. Conflict-Resolution Mechanisms
7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize
8. Nested Enterprises
(Taken from my notes at the end of CH4. She carefully explains each point and why each has a varying degree of importance.)

"Governing the Commons" is a groundbreaking work in the school of Institutionalism. An economy cannot function without proper institutions. Too often economists ignore institutions because of the difficulty in creating realistic models. Ostrom's seminal work has provided the groundwork necessary to create better public policy.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2012
Читати всім ,щоб розуміти корисність і необхідність простих принципів колективного керування власністю. Переклад Тетяни Монтян повністю підлаштований під наші реалії і робить цю книгу незамінною для будь-якої людини, що хоче витягти нашу державу з болота.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I read this book shortly after I had read Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance (Spectre) and my first impression is that the book should be re-issued in 2015, a quarter-century after it was first published, with additional material on how everything here is applicable to governing the cyber-commons. I have to recommend the two books together -- STOP THIEF lays down with deep historical and multi-cultural foundation that gives GOVERNING THE COMMONS even more credibility -- and for those that do not realize, this book earned the author a Nobel Prize in Economics.

On that note, I would point out that this book crushes the traditional explanations for why the state or the firm are superior decision-making alternatives to bottom-up citizen common sense. This book is also consistent with the LOSING proposal to the Club of Rome that recommended we focus on educating the global public (a universal bottom-up approach). As well now know, the Club of Rome chose the wrong solution, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, because is assumed that top-down mandated measures were the only measures that could be effective.

I am posting to the image section for this book a depiction of bottom up long term consensus thinking versus top down elite mandate thinking, something I created in the 1990's after reading Human scale. Subsequently I read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and many other books focused on collective intelligence and they all, without exception, support this author's premise that the only sustainable effective decision-structures for very complex and constantly changing environments are those that blend LOCAL observation, LOCAL rule-making, and LOCAL monitoring and enforcement.

Two recurring themes across the author's case studies characterized by SUCCESS deal with information on the one hand and learning on the other.

01 INFORMATION -- lots of it, very detailed, in real-time, constantly updated, always shared, is the heart of getting it right. In every instance where successful Common-Pool Resources have been managed ably, there has existed an information advantage that cannot be replicated by corporations or governments.

02 LEARNING -- always incremental, always trial & error, always with pooling and blending of local and scientific knowledge.

A major recurring theme across the case studies characterized by FAILURE is that of FEAR OF THE FUTURE. What this means is that the affected population is so afraid of the future and so untrusting of their local government that they heavily discount the future and are ready to violate norms and take all they can in the here and now. Fear -- and ignorance -- destroy the future by destroying human interest in and commitment to the future. Others, such as Col Dr. Max Manwaring, have written ably on how critical it is for governments to retain legitimacy, see his still hugely important edited work, The Search for Security: A U.S. Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century

I am charmed throughout by many turns of phrase, but one of the most impressive for me is that organization is a PROCESS not an institution, and that the best processes are those that optimize collective information-sharing, collective decision-making, so as to achieve collective benefits.

I put the book down with four powerful take-aways:

01 Starting point for understanding any governance challenge is with the resource itself -- the Earth itself. If you fail to exercise due diligence and earnestly collect, process, and analyze all relevant information about that resource, the rate at which it is being drawn down, and all possible causes and effects, then you are destined to get it wrong.

02 When due diligence IS done, the general trend is to achieve the SHOCKING discovery that the resource is being overdrawn by 200% -- instead of a sustainable 100%, the draw, on water, for example, is 300%. Establishing this fact and sharing the information broadly is the single best thing that can be done in any situation.

03 In all success cases, stable long-term populations are vital and REPUTATION is a critical resource all by itself. What this means is that the current failed state environment where elite looting of commonwealths is all too common and the "First World" states accept massive displacement of populations as part of the cost of enabling predatory corporate looting of resources, is in fact counter-productive all around. We are killing a part of the Golden Goose when we sever the century-long ties of a population grounded in specific climes and places. See also Philip Alcott's brilliant The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State. The author speaks of "human artisanship" as a major resource, I join that with reputation and individual human abilities to think and observe and think forward.

04 TIME MATTERS. The sooner you can get the truth on the table for all to see, the lower the cost of remediation once consensus is achieved, the sooner you can get sustainable practices established.

The book ends with the author concluding that all the prevailing modesl (in 1990 but I would say also today in 2014) "have the peverse effect of supporting increased centralization of political authority."

Here are two books on why centralization -- and the corruption that comes with it -- is so terribly wrong:

Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History
Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025

And here are two books on public wisdom and sacred economics as an alternative:

Empowering Public Wisdom: A Practical Vision of Citizen-Led Politics (Manifesto Series)
Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition

This book merits a revival, only this time, with a forcing function that brings it to the attention of all those engaged in the battle for the soul of cyberspace. As a proponent myself for an Autonomous Internet and Liberation Technology I have a natural bias -- I also have hugh faith in the average individual citizen, and confidence in what Vaclav Havel calls "the power of the powerless." We are not powerless. We are ROOT. It's time we lived up to that glorious responsibility.

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
INTELLIGENCE FOR EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability (2010)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2012
I was blessed with a few great professors in college. Interestingly, two of them were recipients of Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes. I recently took the time to re-read a few of their important works, so I thought a review of these two important authors plus another newly published book by an exciting new author would be appropriate - as all three books share similar traits. I will review these books collectively, and I recommend all three without reservation!

The books are: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter; Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions) by Elinor Ostrom; and The Blueprint: Averting Global Collapse by Daniel Rirdan.

Whether it's Hofstadler's Pulizter Prize winning words about artificial intelligence, Ostrom's Nobel Prize winning economic and political comparison of state versus private ownership of common lands, or Rirdan's amazing ability to set political and economic realities aside and probe possible solutions to potential environmental chaos... the trait shared by all three writers and all three books is that they think big.

Because of this, some people will not like these books - one or all. In fact, some people will hate them... and that's OK. Some people are deep thinkers, and some are not. When I sat in Hofstadler's class decades ago, he had already won the awards for his book... and I understood why! When I listened to Professor Ostrom, she was not even the most famous political scientist or economist in her home, as that title belonged to her equally talented husband... but her words rang with clarity and purpose and inspired like few others! When I read the words of Mr. Rirdan, I feel the same way... in fact, his book was what enticed me to pull my well-worn dog-eared books by Ostrom and Hofstadler out of mothballs to be read yet again.

It's a shame that Professor Ostrom (both of them actually) passed away last month, as I think she would have enjoyed reading Rirdan's discussion of what is required to facilitate the great change that's needed for our world to survive and flourish - as this deeply impacts the common pool resources that she loved to examine and discuss...and much more. The economist in her likely also would have been a bit fascinated by his analysis of our globes biomass footprint and how this total anchors our sustainable economic realities into the future of a planet with 7 billion people already on board. While I've not spoken with Professor Hofstadler in decades, I have a feeling that he would admire the way Rirdan set aside some limits of current reality to examine and quantify future possibilities... not altogether different than a dreamlike division of the plane by M.C. Escher that Hofstadler held so dear, or even Ostrom's enjoyable game-theory ramblings.

Frankly, I don't agree with every one of Rirdan's conclusions, and in fact he is seemingly far left of my normally libertarian stance on most issues - but I don't agree necessarily with all of what Ostrom and Hofstadler wrote either. (I will resist the urge to call Hofstadler a strange loop! LOL) That said, I recognize genius when I read it... and all three of these books can be described accordingly. You will be a better person from examining all or any of these three books... I know I am!
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on October 29, 2014
Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel for her work on common-pool resources, so this book represents Economics orthodoxy on the topic.

It does not disappoint.

Presumably to get us interested, the author starts backwards, taking us through three examples of simple theories that predict common-pool resources will always perish: the “prisoner’s dilemma,” the “tragedy of the commons” and the “logic of collective action.”

From there she goes on to explain how a common-pool resource differs from a public good like national defence or public safety: First, if my cow is grazing on a meadow, it’s eating grass that won’t be there for your cow to eat. Second, by dint of competing with one another to extract fish from a lake, we could be doing so at the expense of our future ability to fish from the lake. National defence, on the other hand (a public good, rather than a common-pool resource) is there for all of us to fully take advantage of and does not perish through the tragedy of the commons. A common-pool resource is thus defined (p.30) as a “stock” of variables that can produce a maximum quantity of “flow” variable without harming the “stock” or the system, with the added complications that 1. it could be costly to monitor / police / limit the “appropriation” of the “flow” 2. it could be costly to ensure the continued “provision” of this common-pool resource itself (for example, a community might need to keep a dam in good shape)

Next, the author politely points out that the three game-theoretical constructs which predict the demise of all common-poor resources are far too abstract and proceeds to disprove them by counterexample, listing a number of thriving examples of common-pool resources that 1. have stood the test of time and 2. are isolated and simple enough for us to examine without having any second thoughts as to whether our analysis is complete: High mountain meadows and forests in Switzerland and Japan, irrigation institutions in Spain and the Philippines are described in great detail, and their common characteristics are summarized as follows:

1. Clearly defined boundaries
2. Congruence between local conditions and the rules governing “provision” and “appropriation” of the common-pool resource
3. Collective choice arrangements whereby those who use the common-pool resource have voice in establishing or modifying the rules
4. Monitoring that is, at a minimum, accountable to the appropriators
5. Graduated sanctions for rule-breakers
6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms
7. The right of appropriators to organise must not be challenged by outside authorities
8. For larger common-pool resources there is a need for multiple layers of nested enterprises to take care of “provision,” “appropriation,” “monitoring,” “enforcement,” “resolution,” “government” etc.

It’s a formidable list, but it’s not exhaustive. In the spirit of Douglass North and Mancur Olson, the author next introduces a further factor in the equation, and that’s the contribution that government institutions have to make to common-pool resources by means of providing technological expertise and a helpful legal framework that will jointly act to support, help shape and enforce the decisions of the agents who engage in the provision and appropriation of the common-pool resource. The example here comes from a very thorough examination of how institutional change was made possible in the case of a number of rather diverse groundwater basins in California in the 1950’s and 60’s.

A long list of failures comes under the microscope next: two Turkish fisheries, yet another Californian groundwater basin, a (totally fascinating) Sri Lankan fishery (p.151), followed by a couple borderline cases in Sri Lanka and Canada. They are all checked against the list, with a summary (p.180) of successes and failures that makes for some very persuasive reading.

Rather than declare some type of “breakthrough,” the book closes with an extremely humble assessment of the quandary facing participants in common-pool resources and an attempt to describe a general framework for assessing the potential for success through their eyes: the size, variability, quality and longevity of the benefits that will flow to the potential appropriators must be weighed against the costs inherent in helping out with “provision,” the transformation costs, the monitoring and enforcement costs, the information costs and the potential for positive institutional change. The author submits that in her opinion the following factors are most conducive to a positive decision to adopt a new rule / participate in a proposed solution:

1. Looming harm if the rule is not adopted/changed to save the resource
2. Appropriators will be affected in similar ways if a rule is adopted/changed
3. Low discount rates
4. Low information, transformation, monitoring and enforcement costs
5. Pre-existing social capital ( the form of norms or reciprocity and trust)
6. A relatively small and stable group appropriating from the common-pool resource

I’ll be totally honest, I read this entire book with an eye toward analysing the European common currency as a common-pool resource, but in the end I was captivated by the theory itself. Even if I never apply this knowledge to anything, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Governing the Commons.” I was entertained and challenged in equal measure.
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