This paper reviews the concept of the tragedy of the commons and explores some the issues related to governing the commons. The paper further looks at the interactions between the user and the commons and how these can be improved with self governance mechanisms. Interaction between the user and the commons The “tragedy of the commons”, the ever-recurring and complex environmental issue still perplexing scholars after nearly 50 years, cannot be solved with a singular holistic concept nor with a top down governance solution. Ever since Hardin (1968) described what he recognised as a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, political scholars have used this term to describe and justify the need to ‘govern’ the environment (Ostrom, 1999). The tragedy, as Ostrom reminds us, is one where individuals who exhaust a common resource or contaminate a common space are inexorably trapped into their behaviour, as the individual cost of stopping this action vastly outweighs their individual share of the collective cost of remediating the damage to the commons (Hardin, 1968; Ostrom, 1999). The institutionalization of this concept has led to an ever-growing body of literature proposing solutions to fix the tragedy, many of which underestimate or completely ignore the importance of local context and traditional knowledge.In the article “Tragedy of the Commons,” Hardin regards the users of pasture land as prisoners, as though they exist only to maximise one’s profit, i.
e., the users are imagined to be trapped in a situation that they cannot change. However, he fails to realize that humans have successfully governed open pool resources for decades. According to Hardin, solving the issue of exploitation of common pool resources involves two distinct elements: restricting access and creating incentives. However, these solutions need to be reconsidered, as some of the basic flaws of the existing theories of governing the commons, such as the inability to explain irrational behavior and outcomes or the difficulty to predict the logic of collective action, are often overlooked or misunderstood. The key to governing the commons lies in a return to local governance, reliance on internal dynamics, and reinforcement of inclusive practices.Over the years, common pool resources have not been managed ethically. Only worsening with the advancement of technology and overconsumption, humans have managed to overexploit natural resources to an irreversible extent.
In some extreme cases, such as timber logging and palm oil cultivation in Southeast Asia, this has led to the extreme loss of biodiversity and land use change. The overwhelming response trend to environmental issues arising from a tragedy of the commons situation has been implementation of some form of top down management, which often entails uninformed policymaking at a national level with the expectation for it to trickle down. However, in most cases, management of ecological systems via top down governance without awareness of local norms, practices, and culture can can lead to a failed governance system (Berkes F., 2008). For example, in more complex systems such as forestry in Southeast Asia, in which the government and policymakers fail to understand or acknowledge the ground realities of social structure, illegal trade, or individual economic benefit from converting natural forests to plantations. Such oversight has resulted in massive deforestation in the region from 1946 to 2012 (Fleischman, F.D et al.
, 2014) Therefore, it is important to establish a relationship between the resource and the users through the concept of self governance. This has been achieved in countries like Nepal and India in the case of community forest management and preservation of sacred groves where local context and traditional knowledge was considered to conserve a resource. (Agrawal, A. and C. C. Gibson. 1999)Existing literature is finally beginning to reflect that top down management of common pool resources is not always the most efficient way to manage a resource.
The idea of co-management is highly recommended as multiple actors are involved in various degrees and governing processes such that the complexities of both the ecological system and the social system can be understood and managed efficiently (Berkes and Folke, 1998). Within the concept of co-management is the practice of social learning. In a study by Olsson et al.
, researchers found that learning-as-participation led to a broadening of the scope of collaborative problem solving both at the local, as well as at the ecosystem level, across individual and group actors within multiple levels of organisation (2004). One of the most credible ways to improve the governance of a socioecological system is to understand its users and their internal dynamics which can occur on a local, regional, and global scale. Building trust between the internal and external processes and between the local and national government is also key to a managing a common resource. The idea of enhancing social learning is one of the least intrusive ways to promote good governance over a long term. Social learning, among other practices within co-management, occurs at the local level, relies on internal social dynamics to succeed, and reinforces inclusive decision making and collaboration.
Conclusion Co-management can be perceived as a knowledge sharing partnership between different actors. Translation of knowledge and cooperation is one of the ways to successfully link the gaps between actors governing the commons. As seen in the case of community forestry in India or fisheries in the Philippines, successful governance can take place when local knowledge is included in the decision making process. At a time when environmental issues are becoming increasingly extreme and consequential, it’s more important that ever to look towards traditional, contextual, and collaborative mechanisms to ensure sustainable, long-term practices and the inclusive institutions to reinforce them.