Governing the Commons: learning from enduring institutions

Governing the Commons

I just finished reading Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action, by Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. She was the first woman to win the Economics prize.

I sense I’m going to rave about her book in several blog posts. You might want to surrender now and just buy the book.

I found this book while browsing my Nook for “tragedy of the commons” and got sucked in by the title. Her central question: what can we learn from local, mostly non-governmental institutions that have evolved stable and enduring methods for managing community shared resources such as forests, fisheries, and irrigation systems? (I’m sure her research covered a wider variety of resources, but this are the ones most discussed in the book.)

For example, she describes a system of communal forest management in the Japanese villages of Hirano, Nagaike, and Yamanoka. These villages have sustainably harvested trees from their forests, without relying on government regulation or private ownership, for more than 500 years.

For me, this carries personal relevance. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and watched the region’s lumber industry collapse during the 1980s, due in good part to unsustainable practices. That happened barely 100 years after settlers entered the region and began logging the region in earnest. For a community to be managing and harvesting a forested region for half a millennium without government regulation is mind boggling.

Two points that Ostrom emphasizes in her book have particular relevance to this blog:

  • The local groups who know the community resources best are in the best position to lead the evolution of practices and institutions for managing that resource.
  • Government is neither monolithic nor omniscient, but can be a useful support or adjunct to community groups.

To me, these points connect with the Group H design principles of designing with, not for, and designing processes, not stuff.

In creating and distributing public goods and services, government often behaves as an omniscient monolith, to the detriment of whatever locally appropriate processes and solutions were evolving. We’d be better off with government designing with those whom it serves, and designing processes that evolve and enduring rather than stuff that wears out and needs replacing.

For me, this was one of those right books that came along at the exact right time. Like I said, expect more raving about this book.

(Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action and other books mentioned in this blog are available in the bookstore.)

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