Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Supplant "Common Knowledge" with "Common(s)Knowledge"

Ever since Hardin (1968) published 'The Tragedy of Commons' in Science, 'Common Knowledge' would tell us that: 'Everybody's property is nobody's property,' meaning that whenever resources are used collectively without private ownership, eventually, the resources would be exploited, degraded, and perhaps ultimately, tragically, depleted--so that nobody could use them anymore.

Common(s)Knowledge--a new synthesized understanding of the classic and current research on policy, practice and theory on Commons--tells another story. That is, as Hardin (1998) himself later acknowledged: The 'tragedy' is not inevitable--unless Commons go unmanaged. Right off, to shift the paradigm, "Common Pool/Property Resource (CPR) Regimes" must be distinguished from "Open-Access Property Regimes:"

CPR Regimes stipulate rules for resource consumption (and perhaps even replenishment!). Whereas, in Open-Access Regimes, such appropriate governing arrangements are lacking, such that people may face scarcity of resources, and the ecological health of an area may deteriorate without recourse.

It may be tempting to then turn to "Private Property Regimes" as 'Common Knowledge' would have us do... However, odds are that people may likely be better off according to a variety of important social and economic indicators when resources are managed under common pool resource (CPR) regimes compared to private property regimes--such as regimes that would privatize water or issue individual title deeds to land. This, according to findings from quantitative, qualitative and experimental economics studies (Lesorogol, 2008; Agrawal, 2003; Ostrom, 1990).

The choice between selecting Private Property and CPR regimes arises when one must grapple with the problem of "subractability." - A resource is "subtractable" if 'the more people that use a good, the less of the good there will be for later use'.

By way of explanation, Public Goods, such as clean air--a collective 'natural resource' regulated by national environmental laws and international treaties--are NOT subtractable. Neither are goods such as toll highways subtractable; however, toll booths Restrict Access to goods. Toll booths are an economic instrument selected not always to manage the toll highway itself, but perhaps to generate income for maintenance of other public goods.

The idea behind Private Property is that, when a resource is subtractable - such as water: (if I drink a well dry, you won't have water), you may want to restrict my access in order to prevent the resource from being subtracted (depleted). Now, when we speak of CPR, we are also talking about goods that are subractable - the more you use, the less I can - but the key is: There are more options to achieve socially equitable and environmentally sustainable distribution and management of commonly-used resources than simple restriction of access through privatization.

What then are these CPR Regimes? How do they work? Do they work? Ostrom (1990, p. 90) provided a list of 'design principles' for the establishment of (local) institutions which have been empirically demonstrated to promote sustainable management of Commons resources. In fact, there is a wide literature on such institutions.

However, there are 'no panaceas' when it comes to designing the right institutions to achieve natural resource management and rural development goals (Ostrom, 2007). Rather, it is necessary to choose the 'best fit' for the given resource system (Ibid, 2007). The appropriate property regime may be Private Property in one case, and a CPR regime in another.

Ostrom (2007) and later Basurto and Ostrom (2009) advise using a "diagnostic" approach to selecting appropriate institutional arrangements for sustainable/equitable Commons Management. Like in medicine, each individual is unique; yet humans suffer common ailments - a cold has similar symptoms in me as it does in you: Same with institutions managing complex resources. When resources are scarce, certain rules of extraction make more sense than other rules. Guided by this theory, empirical studies can help us select those institutional options that are most often supported by evidence to inform policy and practice.

Last, policy and program monitoring and evaluation can help us to assess how effective these institutions are at actually delivering just distribution of resources without compromising access to these resources in the future... as for future generations - thereby actually realizing social justice and environmental conservation goals (Sen, 2009).

Here, you are invited to build your Common(s)Knowledge, supplanting the tragically outdated 'Common Knowledge' on Commons.


~PakKaramu~ said...

Visiting your blog

Devin Peipert said...

First, great handling of this topic. It is certainly a hot one in development.

Second, I like how you bring-out Ostrom's diagnostic approach. This approach makes a lot of sense to me, and the argument for it in Basurto & Ostrom (2009) is convincing. Sure, no panacea will work - on this issue or others - but like they argue, there are similarities and differences between situations (like the similarities and differences between human bodies) that could help development practitioners which government scheme might work best.

Look forward to your future posts.