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Cooperating on the Commons Part Two
The Understory: Issue Twenty-Six
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This is the second of a two-part issue. To read Part One first, please click here.
Elinor Ostrom is far from a household name. For every article talking about Milton Friedman, I am guessing every 100th (even that may be generous) mentions the contributions of Ostrom. I only learned about her work over the past year. I’ve been asking myself why Ostrom’s work, despite being lauded with a Nobel Prize in Economics, is so little known and infrequently discussed? Why was Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) integrated into the required economics curriculum during my MBA but there was no mention of Ostrom or others who repudiated the findings and actually navigated systemic solutions to the tragedy of our self-interest?
As it turns out, many of the most esteemed economists in the world (most likely including my MBA professors) were unaware of Ostrom’s work prior to winning the Nobel. As Steven Levitt (of Freaknonomics fame) wrote in a blog post,
“If you had done a poll of academic economists yesterday and asked who Elinor Ostrom was, or what she worked on, I doubt that more than one in five economists could have given you an answer. I personally would have failed the test. I had to look her up on Wikipedia, and even after reading the entry, I have no recollection of ever seeing or hearing her name mentioned by an economist. She is a political scientist, both by training and her career — one of the most decorated political scientists around. So the fact I have never heard of her reflects badly on me, and it also highlights just how substantial the boundaries between social science disciplines remain.”
Often our inability to look beyond boundaries limits our purview into new possibilities and contradictions. As Ostrom’s research proves, this is also true of the government structures and private organizations often tasked with maintaining our commons. In her Preface to Governing the Commons (1990), Ostrom writes about her own surprise on joining the National Academy of Sciences’ “Panel on Common Property Resource Management.” Ostrom finds a series of papers that not only address the physical properties of commons resource systems, but also the interactions and outcomes that result from the rules regulating the systems. She marvels at the fact that a rich case-study literature of highly specialized knowledge already exists, and how those studies are often buried within obscure journals with no apparent synthesis of the findings.
It is not my intention to turn this essay into a polemic about spanning disciplinary boundaries (although I believe that is hugely important), but rather to revere just how radical Ostrom’s work was and remains to this day in how we think about the capacities of groups. I also think a significant reason for the continued obscurity of Ostrom is our confirmation bias. Since her findings disprove much of what we’ve been taught to believe about human self-interest and the devolution of cooperative groups—even when we come across the work and findings—we are prone to discount them.
Part Two of Issue Twenty-Six largely focuses on Ostrom’s findings in hopes that they may shape new approaches to seemingly intractable collective action problems such as climate change. This Issue expands the foundational theory from Part One to dive deeper into the contexts of our commons and the vitality and possibilities of group cooperation. Ostrom discovers that the rules (structural conditions) matter a great deal in how we make decisions. These structural conditions (of our own design) are likely to determine whether cooperation succeeds or fails. Rather than being universal principles, our behaviour is a response to the two contexts that we face: 1) the “microcontext” that we are directly responding to, and 2) the “social-ecological” system that surrounds the micro context.
Our Cultural Context
When describing non-human species, we generally accept the idea of behaviours being responses to context. Nearly every species on the planet thrives because of mutualism in their ecosystems. Ostrom cites the evolutionary research of Danish biologist Wilhelm Johannsen who determines that the appearance, physiology, and behaviour of plants derive not just from genes, but also from the interactions with their environmental context. Quoting Pfennig and Ledón-Rettig from The Flexible Organism (2009),
“Some plants produce large, thin leaves (which enhance photosynthetic photon harvest) in low light, and narrow, thicker leaves (which conserve water) in high light; certain insects develop wings only if they live in crowded conditions (and hence are likely to run out of adequate food in their current location). Such environmentally contingent development is so commonplace that it can be regarded as a universal property of living things.”
Are humans really so uncommon that we differ from the most commonplace property of all living things? In preparing Issue Twelve on reciprocity, I went searching for sources describing how systems of reciprocity create social foundations for the thriving of all life. In my misdirection, I re-read “The Tragedy of the Commons” only to discover a theory on the demise of our civilization due to our own inability to stop reproducing ourselves at unsustainable planetary rates. No mutualism to be found there. Hardin’s search for universality leads him to conclude,
“Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom [emphasis added] in a commons brings ruin to all...Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man's population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.”
Hardin’s refutation of the commons is its viability with high population densities and unregulated freedoms. In the section, “Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed upon,” he vociferously argues for a system of constraints on the commons, seemingly assuming that his position is antithetical to that of others. The combination of “coercion” and “mutual agreed upon” is a strange and alienating semantic decision, as coercion preempts individual volition, which Ostrom and others found vital to healthy commons. However, if we look past this poor choice of language, we can find a similar thread with our contemporary commons thinkers about the importance of structural conditions that must limit freedoms to succeed. Ostrom, Axelrod, Joachim Radkau, Alfred Thomas Grove, Oliver Rackhamargue, and others argue that it is the simplicity of Hardin’s premise that lacks the rigour of research and analysis to guide our way out of his perceived tragedy.
Perhaps the legacy of Hardin should be as a catalyst that inspires others to investigate the myriad contextual values of a commons system rather than his current legacy of individuals degrading our planet without regard for its welfare or the well-being of others. Hardin proves a provocateur. In many ways, that is his most important place in commons history.
In her Nobel Prize lecture, Ostrom calls for an understanding of the complexity of context in the commons:
“To explain the world of interactions and outcomes occurring at multiple levels, we also have to be willing to deal with complexity instead of rejecting it. Some mathematical models are very useful for explaining outcomes in particular settings. We should continue to use simple models where they capture enough of the core underlying structure and incentives that they usefully predict outcomes. When the world we are trying to explain and improve, however, is not well described by a simple model, we must continue to improve our frameworks and theories so as to be able to understand complexity and not simply reject it.”
One of the underlying structural components that most interests Ostrom is context. In her dissertation research, Ostrom studies private and public water producers facing the problem of overdrafting common-pool resources. What she finds is that behaviour differs substantially depending on where the individuals meet. Individuals behave differently in a private water association as compared to a courtroom compared at the legislature and relative to citizen gatherings. According to expected utility theory, this defies rational behaviour. Individuals should consistently pursue their self-interest regardless of context. Thankfully, it turns out, they don’t.
Throughout her career, Ostrom finds myriad examples of how the context central authorities create often undermines their desired outcomes. Ostrom’s colleagues from the University of Indiana collaborated with researchers from Makerere University to investigate how the decentralization reforms of the 1990s in the Mpigi District of Uganda affect forest conditions. In their 2007 paper, Banana et al. find that:
“Robust institutions that are effective in moderating deforestation are likely to be those that contain a provision for periodic updating, negotiated by all relevant stakeholders at a given time, to reflect current social context and ecological health of the forests. The long-term maintenance of a forest’s condition or extent, ceteris paribus, may be [sic] more, a function of how the institutional arrangement governing that forest was designed and maintained than a specific distribution of authority over the forest between different levels of government and user groups.”
What the researchers find is that the static approach to institutional development fails to understand and respond to the changing conditions in which it operates. The failure to manage the forest emerges from the failure of the governance arrangement to adapt over time and maintain a legitimate and equitable process in the eyes of stakeholders. Individual behaviour on the commons is not so much a response to the differences between people as it is to the structural conditions where their interactions take place.
In the Nobel lecture, Ostrom provides a list of attributes for increasing group cooperation in microsituations based on her research with Poteete & Janssen from Working Together : Collective Action, The Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice (2009):
Face-to-face communication: sensing through expression, actions, and words
Reputation: knowledge of the past history of other participants
Contribution: acknowledgement of high-levels of participant contributions
Entry or Exit: low costs to enter and exit
Time Horizon: lengthening the time for interactions changes benefits structures
Sanctions: creating and imposing sanctioning by participants themselves
While many of these may seem like common sense when read in list form, I ask you to reflect on a cooperative context where all are present. For example, you might think of a workplace group. Such a microsituation might have 1, 2, 3 and even 5 present. But the cost to exit is typically high, and rarely do participants have the chance to design and impose sanctions on other participants. The absence of any of these conditions result in compromising the collaborative potential of the group.
Power of Relations
For most of human history, our evolution has been in small groups. Building on the contextual importance Ostrom establishes, we next can layer in the structure of our relationships for our (in)ability to cooperate on the commons. Robert Axelrod cites E.O. Wilson’s concept of “stable territories” from Sociobiology (1975) whereby there are two different spatial contexts affecting group relationships between species: those where the probability of interaction is high (existing and neighbouring territories) and the other where the probability of future interaction is low (unknown territories). Of course, we are not the only species that interacts differently with others based on our geospatial context. Wilson shares his observation that male territorial birds display different behaviours based on their recognition of songs. Male birds show much more aggressive behaviours towards the song of unfamiliar males than ones heard from nearby neighbours, which would typically see as non-coopperative. However, the male songbird is also cooperative by behaving differently to a group based on their proximity. Whether the songbird is cooperating or noncooperative depends on the relational context.
Humans are often conscious and even deliberate with their ingroup and out-of-group behaviours leading to categorizations such as “tribes” to describe relational, not just biological, kin. Atkins, Sloan Wilson & Hayes integrate and expand upon Wilson’s evidence of our evolutionary territorial relationships in Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups:
“We are, in effect, in a state of evolutionary mismatch. We evolved to be extraordinarily cooperative in small groups, but we are not faced with the challenge of a wholly new environment in which we’re asked to cooperate, not just with those we know well but also with people who are practically strangers—that is, not just with “us” but also with “them.” When our social environments become different than the contexts in which we evolved, then what used to be ‘natural’ and ‘effortless’ can go terribly wrong—even in small village-sized groups. We are in entirely new territory today. Never before have we so frequently been faced with the challenges of coordinating with groups with perspectives that differ radically from that of our own. But also, never before have so many people had access to the tools to create cooperation on a vast scale.”
This exponentially expanding distribution of those we know and those we don’t radically affects not just our behaviours within and outside groups, but also creates a kind of security in what seems like an increasingly unknown and foreign world. What used to be geographic content for relations has become untethered to spatial contexts. Not only are our human relations through friendships, families, and workplaces now spread across the globe, but our existence is also bifurcated into physical and virtual. Back in spring 2020, I wrote an article on Medium that quotes William J. Mitchell about how “The Net negates geometry...You cannot say where it is or describe its memorable shape and proportions or tell a stranger how to get there.” Mitchell argues that we live in an antispatial world where seemingly territorial boundaries know no end or dissolve completely. How are we to reconcile an antispatial world with a land-based evolution of relations? How are we to build cooperative frameworks when our preferences veer towards ingroups; yet the imperative for collective action problems such as climate change requires that we cooperate with those unknown to us?
Ostrom’s answer to this vexing commons conundrum is the concept of polycentrism, which centres on identifying optimal scale for groups and their interactions. She found that approaches usually work well in groups of no more than a few thousand members. If the group grows much beyond that, Ostrom found norms hard to enforce and free-riding difficult to suppress. Rather than one large group, Ostrom advocates for multiple centers of semiautonomous decision-making in overlapping, optimally sized groups. As the authors write in Proscial, Ostrom’s polycentrism opposes both of our most prevalent concepts of commons management: laissez-faire and centralized planning. The main failing of laissez-faire is that the pursuit of lower-level self-interest does not often benefit the common good. Centralized planning is even more problematic as human social systems are too complex to be managed by a team of experts, outside regulators often have limited information compared to the members within a system, and the imposition of rules diminishes creativity and ownership. Ostrom provides a theoretical framework to understand and manage effective cooperation within and between groups.
In The Evolution of Cooperation (1984), Axelrod adds to Ostrom’s theoretical principles on group cooperation with his findings that emerge out of prisoner’s dilemma experiments. The first shift is time. Axelrod found that what made cooperation much more likely to emerge was the fact that the individuals might meet again. This expanded relationship meant that any current choice might affect the later choices of others. “The future can therefore cast a shadow back upon the present and thereby affect the current strategic situation,” writes Axelrod. Recalling E.O. Wilson’s observations of male songbirds, Axelrod also found that cooperation increases when interactions become more frequent. His recommendation for increasing the frequency of interactions is to display behaviour that keeps others away.
What I found particularly counterintuitive and also compelling is Axelrod’s finding that “the foundation of cooperation is not really trust, but the durability of the relationship.” This emerges from observing the TIT FOR TAT strategy whereby successful cooperation emerges from the stable pattern of responses and their predictability rather than increasing trust. The implication is that friendship is not necessary for cooperation nor trust in those you are managing the commons with; rather success emerges from the assurance that individuals will meet each other again, recognize each other from the past, and remember how the others behaved until the current situation. Axelrod’s model overcomes concerns about scales of relations by recognizing that successful cooperation on the commons comes from an enduring relationship between individuals rather than a precondition of trust and friendship.
Design Principles for Cooperative Planetary Regeneration
This is the section that many of you are anticipating from Part One, and, quite frankly, was my initial reason for embarking on this journey about the commons. I left this section for the end because my interests extend as much into the contextual findings along the way as the outcomes from the research. The context of a socio-political-geographic integration of collective action on the surface would seem to make these challenges seem so complex that no rules system could navigate a way out. This is not to suggest that managing the commons cooperatively is easy; however, we have evidence-based guidance on the factors that will dramatically improve our chances of success.
Let’s begin with Robert Axelrod who primarily concerns himself with the individual interactions that undergird effective groups. In all of his experimentation, Axelrod finds a single property that distinguishes between high and low performance—being nice (never the first to defect from cooperation). If the future is more important than the present and group members recall the past behaviours of others, then being nice becomes an optimizing behaviour for both the group and the individual. However, Axelrod doesn’t recommend a strategy of always being nice. Instead, he recommends that individuals defect immediately as a response to another group member’s defection. This is based on his findings on how to avoid the downward spiral of defections. By provoking sooner, it sends a feedback mechanism to the group that non-cooperative behaviour is met with a response. Axelrod concludes that
“Cooperation can begin with small clusters. It can thrive with strategies that are "nice" (that is, never the first to defect), provocable, and somewhat forgiving. Once established in a population, individuals using such discriminating strategies can protect themselves from invasion. The overall level of cooperation tends to go up and not down...This is the essence of the ratchet effect: Once cooperation based upon reciprocity gets established in a population, it cannot be overcome even by a cluster of individuals who try to exploit the others.”
Axelrod’s strategies play for the long game and anticipate individuals displaying non-cooperative behaviour. If we manage for the long-term rather than the short and the group rather than the individual, Axerod’s four suggestions for navigating the prisoner’s dilemma will help us avoid it:
1. Don't be envious.
2. Don't be the first to defect.
3. Reciprocate both cooperation and defection.
4. Don't be too clever.
Many of Ostrom’s recommendations complement those of Axelrod. Her grand theory that encompasses all her Core Design Principles (CDPs) is that “humans have a more complex motivational structure and more capability to solve social dilemmas than posited in earlier rational-choice theory. In 2009, Cox, Arnold, and Villamayor-Tomás (2009) published an update to Ostrom's Core Design Principles that provide even greater nuance than the original CDPs:
1a. User boundaries: clear and locally understood boundaries between legitimate users and nonusers are present.
1b. Resource boundaries: clear boundaries that separate a specific common-pool resource from a larger social-ecological system are present.
2a. Congruence with local conditions: appropriation and provision rules are congruent with local social and environmental conditions.
2b. Appropriation and provision: appropriation rules are congruent with provision rules; the distribution of costs is proportional to the distribution of benefits.
3. Collective-choice arrangements: Most individuals affected by a resource regime are authorized to participate in making and modifying its rules.
4a. Monitoring users: individuals who are accountable to or are the users monitor the appropriation and provision levels of the users.
4b. Monitoring the resource: individuals who are accountable to or are the users monitor the condition of the resource.
5. Graduated sanctions: sanctions for rule violations start very low but become stronger if a user repeatedly violates a rule.
6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms: rapid, low-cost, local arenas exist for resolving conflicts among users or with officials.
7. Minimal recognition of rights: the rights of local users to make their own rules are recognized by the government.
8. Nested enterprises: When a common-pool resource is closely connected to a larger social-ecological system, governance activities are organized in multiple nested layers.
If Hardin was to look back upon Ostrom’s CDPs, I am confident that he’d be astonished. What she was able to achieve and what likely garnered her the Nobel was a decentralized system of governance that operates within a system of regulated freedoms by those who are being governed rather than a centralized authority.
Sloan Wilson sees that the implementation of Ostrom’s core design principles may lead to a miniature evolutionary transition as a group rather than the disparate and individual selection of each of its members. In what is quite the controversial theory about group selection through cultural evolution, he asks whether a group can become an evolutionary entity?
“Perhaps groups enacting these principles could suppress within-group competition and support cooperation to such an extent that something new, a truly high-performing group, might emerge—metaphorically a new organism operating in its own ecology.”
It is Ostrom’s eighth principle—the polycentricity of nested enterprises—that Sloan Wilson envisions can create a larger ecosystem of groups. Taken at a cultural scale, this would rein in the selfishness of smaller level selection where the benefits of cooperation at a higher level become a source of our next evolutionary development. Ostrom’s work gives us that the confidence that indeed a system can manage itself with the right structural conditions. She offers us a promising structure for how we can create governance systems for collective action. The key is polycentrism rather than centrism.
“A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans. We need to ask how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable, and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.”
Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize lecture (2009)
For those of us working to change the structural conditions for cooperation within our organizations and/or cities, Ostrom and Robert Axelrod offer evidence-based design principles that work with rather than oppose self-interest through both the micro and broader contexts. In these principles we can find guidance for shaping decentralized institutions that enable human communities to self-organize for greater individual fulfillment and more successful outcomes for the regeneration of our planetary health. The tragedy of the commons will continue to haunt us. However, equipped with specific design principles that respond and accommodate context, we can move towards the guiding light rather than wallow in the darkness of tragedy.
If a requirement for cooperation is relationality, and we recognize that cooperation achieves more optimal outcomes than central authorities with common-pool resources, then we come to realize that our ability to regenerate a healthy living planet requires a depth of community density largely missing from most contemporary urban living. We need stronger communities whose senses of relationality and reciprocity become the mechanisms for cooperating to maintain the commons.
Equipped with the structural conditions to effectively maintain the commons, it is time for us to work together on building polycentric governance in our own communities. We know that centralized governance and laissez-faire neoliberal capitalism will not get us there. Each of us must step up to create the structural conditions for the communities we need to emerge. This very well may be one of the most important steps we can make towards tackling climate change and creating a healthier living planet.
Go forth and make a difference. See you next Saturday with Reflections on Parts One and Two. As a valuable member of The Understory community, I’d welcome your reflections.
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We have crossed the climate-change threshold from emerging to urgent, which demands a transformative response. The scale of the issue demands not only continuous focus but also the courage to take bold action. I've found that the persistence of climate consciousness improves resilience to the noise and distractions of daily life in service of a bigger (and most of the time invisible) long-term cause.
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