Governing the commons in the new millennium: A diversity of institutions for natural resource management


The impact of humans on global environmental change is becoming increasingly apparent, with consequences ranging from impacts on climate change to declines in biodiversity, soil degradation and forest degradation. Governing natural resources sustainably thus represents a major challenge for the future. Given increases in population and in levels of human consumption, how do we develop a diverse and robust set of institutions for the sustainable use of natural resources?

The Debate Initiated by Garrett Hardin

In his influential article in Science on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin presented a logic that he presumed was general and referred to all common-pool natural resources that were not either government owned or privately owned. He envisioned a pasture open to all, in which each herder received an immediate individual benefit from adding animals to graze on the pasture and suffered only delayed costs (with his fellow herders) from overgrazing. Hardin concluded: “Therein is the tragedy. 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” (Hardin, 1968: 1244).

Hardin’s conclusion was immediately accepted by many scholars. His article is still required reading in most environmental science programs and frequently assigned multiple times during an undergraduate program. In the early days of the scholarly discussion, scholars tended to develop theoretical papers that posited narrowly rational resource users that did not take a long-term view of the problems they faced. Somehow, government officials, on the other hand, were posited as being able to take the public interest into account and develop policies that would avert the tragedy of the commons.

Policymakers tended to accept Hardin’s results and thought the conclusions made it obligatory for them to take positive actions to impose policies on the users of pastures, forests, fisheries, water systems and other common-pool resources in their domain. Government officials did not examine whether the users of these resources had developed rules of their own over time, because it was simply assumed that resource users were trapped and helpless. National governments around the world declared that government ownership was the only way to save resources from destruction. Forests in India, Thailand, and many countries in Africa were nationalized during the 1970s and 1980s in an immediate acceptance that this was the only way to avoid massive deforestation. In many instances, these and the related conversion of inshore fisheries policies had the effect of overruling locally developed institutions that were on the ground. In practice, these resources were often converted to “open access” given the lack of administrative follow-up and that local users were told they had no rights. As many of these policies appeared to accelerate deforestation and overuse of resources, a major debate about the best property-rights system for sustainable management of natural resources was initiated.

Contrary Evidence

In addition to the findings that government policies nationalizing forests and other resources did not lead uniformly to a solution, other empirical studies recorded settings where the resource users themselves had developed their own rules that had enabled a resource to be used sustainably over long periods of time—sometimes exceeding a century or longer. The National Resource Council of the US National Academy of Sciences has convened two major meetings—one in 1985 and one 15 years later in 2000—of scholars from multiple disciplines to examine the evidence related to the ability of local users to organize their own rules. Slowly over time this led to the development of a more coherent theory of the commons.

Insights Concerning the Ability of Some Communities to Overcome Common-Pool Resource Dilemmas

When dealing with a presumption of an impossibility of resource users solving their own problems of overuse, finding a large number of cases where resource users succeed is an important accomplishment. That is exactly what scholars during the last part of the 20th century did. One of the major conceptual accomplishments was the emphatic recognition of the confusion that had existed for some time over the name used for resources and for potential institutional arrangements or property regimes. The term “common property resource” was abbreviated as CPR and widely used across the social sciences for resources such as forests, lakes, pastures, fisheries and irrigation systems. The term confused a resource system that might or might not have a linked property-rights system with a form of institution called “common property.” This confused a resource—a common-pool resource—with a property system—a common property regime. The initials, CPR, were used for both concepts.

Slowly, over time, general agreement has been reached that a common-pool resource is one with two characteristics: (1) it is very costly to exclude potential beneficiaries from accessing and harvesting from the resource and (2) the amount of resource flows harvested by one user is subtracted from the quantity available to others. Thus, it shares the first characteristic with public goods (the cost of exclusion) and the second characteristics with private goods (subtractability). A common-pool resource can be managed under any of a broad type of property-rights regimes ranging from:

  • Government ownership, where a formal government ranging in size from a local city all the way to national government claimed ownership of the resource and the right to fully determine who could or could not use and under what circumstances;
  • Private ownership, where a single individual or private firm has full claims to determine use patterns; and
  • Community or common property ownership, where a group of individuals shares rights to ownership.

A fourth possibility is “no ownership” or “open access,” which is what Hardin assumed in his illustrative case. Open access is only one out of four general possibilities that can relate to a common-pool resource.

Evidence from field as well as from research conducted in experimental laboratories around the world challenges the generalizability of Hardin’s tragedy of the commons theory. While his theory is generally successful in predicting outcomes in settings where resource users are alienated from one another or cannot communicate effectively for reasons including the size of the group or their total separation, it does not provide an explanation for settings where resource users are able to create and sustain their own agreements to avoid serious problems of overharvesting. Nor does it predict well when government ownership will perform appropriately or whether privatization will improve outcomes. After more than three decades of research related to the possibility that some resource users will self-organize and manage a common-pool resource, while others will not, it is now possible to provide a theoretical argument for the factors affecting the likelihood that the users of a common-pool resource will commit themselves to changing rules from open access to a new set of rules that restricts who can use resource flows and potentially other rules affecting the sustainability of the resource.

Let us assume a set of resource users contemplating a proposed change in the rules related to their use of a common-pool resource. Each user has to compare the expected net benefits of harvesting resource units versus continuing to use no rules or existing rules that are not working well to the benefits he or she expects to achieve with a new set of rules that has been proposed. Each user must ask whether his or her evaluation of future benefits under a new set of rules is positive or negative. If the evaluation of net benefits is negative for all users, no one has an incentive to change rules. One can predict the resource will remain as open-access. If net benefits are positive for some users, each of these users needs to estimate three types of costs:

  1. The up-front costs of time and effort spent devising and agreeing upon new rules;
  2. The short-term costs of adopting new harvesting strategies; and
  3. The long-term costs of monitoring and maintaining a self-governed system.

If the sum of these expected costs for all users exceeds the incentive to change, no user will invest the time and resources needed to create new institutions. No change will occur.

In field settings, everyone is not likely to expect the same costs and benefits from a proposed change. Some may perceive positive benefits after all costs have been taken into account, while others perceive net losses. Consequently, the collective-choice rules used to change the day-to-day operational rules in a group of resource users affect whether an institutional change favored by some and opposed by others will be adopted. One must recognize that not all collective decisions made in the field are democratic or, even if they are democratic, meet all of the conditions leading to stable outcomes. In many field studies, resource users draw on either the accepted rules that have evolved over time in social games or in political games related to the villages where resource users live. It may be that these rules are used as collective-choice rules to decide on future operational rules related to a common-pool resource.

For any collective-choice rule, such as unanimity or majority, there may be a minimum coalition of users (such as a small ruling elite) that agree that they should adopt new rules. If no minimum winning coalition (given the collective-choice rules-in-use) evaluates net benefits greater than the sum of the costs, no new operational rules will be adopted. If a local chief or other notable has dictatorial powers at the collective-choice level, then only this single person has to estimate that the costs of changing a rule are less than the benefits of a new rule. In this case, of course, there may not be widespread benefits for other members of the group. If the group relies on a larger collective-choice rule and if there are several such coalitions, the question of which coalition will form, and thus which rules will result, is a further theoretical issue that is too complex to address in this entry. A similar analysis is also relevant to the continuing consideration of changing operational rules over time.

The collective-choice rule used to change operational rules in field settings varies from an informal reliance on the decisions made by one or a few leaders, to a formal reliance on majority or super-majority vote, to reliance on consensus or close to unanimity. If there are substantial differences in the perceived benefits and costs of users, it is possible that one set of users will impose a new set of rules on the other users. The imposed new rules may then strongly favor those in the winning coalition and impose losses or lower benefits on those in the losing coalition. If expected benefits from a change in operational rules are not greater than expected costs for many users, however, the costs of enforcing a change in institutions will be much higher than when most participants expect to benefit from a change in rules over time. Where the enforcement costs are fully borne by the harvesters themselves, operational rules that provide a substantial benefit to most users lower the long-term costs of monitoring and sanctioning for a governing coalition. Where external authorities enforce the rules agreed upon by users, the distribution of costs and benefits are more likely to benefit a subgroup and may impose costs on the other users.

Conditions that Favor Community Governance

One of the key findings of empirical field research on collective action is the multiplicity of rules-in-use found in successful commons regimes around the world. This has spurred efforts to identify principles of institutional design that characterize robust, long-lasting institutional arrangements for the governance of the commons. To be effective, rules must be generally known and understood, considered relatively legitimate, generally followed, and enforced. Effective, sustainable community management of common property natural resources is also more likely to occur when the boundary of the resource is easy to identify, changes in the state of the resource can be monitored at a relatively low cost, the rate of change in resource condition and in the socioeconomic and technological conditions of users remains moderate, communities maintain frequent social interactions with each other that increase trust within the community (thereby increasing social capital), outsiders can be relatively easily excluded from accessing the resource (preventing large-scale invasion of the resource by outsiders), and rule infractions are monitored and sanctioned. Naturally, all of these conditions will not be present in all field settings—but when present, they do appear to increase the likelihood of successful community management.

Challenges for the New Millennium

Under appropriate conditions, communities can devise appropriate operational and collective-choice arrangements that enable the sustainable use of natural resources. Indeed, this has been observed in field contexts ranging from forests to fisheries and fresh water systems. Just as government ownership does not represent a final solution for the sustainable use of natural resources, however, neither is community management a panacea for all the ills that plague natural resource management. It is difficult to craft successful, sustainable and robust local institutional arrangements by imposing of rules from external authorities or through the influx of funds from external agencies. Unfortunately, many policy analysts have not recognized this problem. All too often, analysts enthusiastically propose blueprint, cookie-cutter approaches to community conservation. These approaches are based on relatively simple, even somewhat simplistic models, of what they consider to be “community” management applied across multiple contexts.

In reality, these policy changes are often cosmetic, and lack effective community management. Little recognition has been given to the time needed by a community to develop some of the essential elements of achieving a self-governed or co-managed resource system. The large-scale, rapid expansion of many of these programs has led to problems such as elite capture (especially where the influx of large sums of money has taken place), the “crowding out” of indigenously developed rules that are more appropriate to local context by externally imposed, blueprint rules, increase in social conflict, and a range of other problems. Unfortunately, critiques of these simplistic panacea-like approaches have not yet penetrated policy circles that still recommend simple, uniformly applicable and rapidly scalable solutions to the complex, context-sensitive problems of resource governance.

Much more attention needs to be paid to the need for adaptive crafting of institutions that fit the socio-ecological system of interest. Biophysical scientists have long recognized that ecological systems vary dramatically according to local context. Factors that range from elevation, slope, aspect, temperature, rainfall, soil, and microclimatic conditions all have an impact on biodiversity at a particular location. Policy scientists need to recognize a similar diversity in the institutions that can assist human users to devise arrangements for sustainable management of a resource. Along with encouraging conditions favorable for the success of collective action, learning and adaptation to changing socioeconomic, ecological, technological and policy environments will be critical for the long-term persistence of these solutions in the rapidly changing world of the new millennium.

Governing large-scale commons such as international rivers, the oceans, and the global atmosphere are among the major challenges facing all of us in the 21st century. Substantial progress has been made in developing complex institutional arrangements for improving the ecological conditions of the Rhine River and some other international rivers through initiatives taken by environmental NGOs, local citizens, national governments, and international regimes. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is a clear example of a successful international regime. We are in an era, however, in which considerable conflict exists among some of the other international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Many of the same lessons learned about smaller-scale common-pool resources apply to larger scales—particularly the need to understand that each ecological region is composed of a unique mix of biophysical and social attributes. Similarly, the passage of a formal agreement is not equivalent to the individuals, corporations, NGOs, and relevant governments involved understanding, agreeing to, and following the formal set of rules. Given the growing interconnections among the peoples of the earth, the coming era is one of great opportunities for creative forms of international governance—as well as one of great threat if the problems associated with diverse large-scale commons are ignored.

Further Readings

  • Agrawal, Arun. 2007. “Forests, Governance, and Sustainability: Common Property Theory and its Contributions.” International Journal of the Commons 1(1) (October): 111-36.
  • Berkes, F., T. P. Hughes, R. S. Steneck, J. A. Wilson, D. R. Bellwood, B. Crona, et al. 2006. “Globalization, Roving Bandits, and Marine Resources.” Science 311:1557-58.
  • Dietz, Thomas, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul Stern. 2003. “The Struggle to Govern the Commons.” Science 302(5652): 1907-12.
  • Gunderson, Lance H., and Crawford S. Holling, eds. 2001. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington, DC: Island Press.
  • Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162:1243-48.
  • Moran, Emilio, and Elinor Ostrom, eds. 2005. Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Human-Environment Interactions in Forest Ecosystems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Oberth?r, Sebastian and Thomas Gehring. 2006. Institutional Interaction in Global Environmental Governance: Synergy and Conflict among International and EU Policies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Ostrom, Elinor. 2007. “A Diagnostic Approach for Going beyond Panaceas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(39):15181-87.
  • Ostrom, Elinor, and Harini Nagendra. 2006. “Insights on Linking Forests, Trees, and People from the Air, on the Ground, and in the Laboratory.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103(51):19224-31.
  • Ostrom, Elinor, Roy Gardner, James Walker. 1994. Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Young, Oran R. 2002. The Institutional Dimensions of Environmental Change: Fit, Interplay, and Scale. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


  • Berkes, F., T. P. Hughes, R. S. Steneck, J. A. Wilson, D. R. Bellwood, B. Crona, et al. 2006. “Globalization, Roving Bandits, and Marine Resources.” Science 311:1557-58.
  • Ostrom, Elinor, Marco A. Janssen, and John M. Anderies. 2007. "Going beyond Panaceas." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(39):15176-78.
    • This is the introduction to a Special Feature and we would like to link to each of the articles in that special feature.
  • Ostrom, Elinor and Harini Nagendra. 2006. “Insights on Linking Forests, Trees, and People from the Air, on the Ground, and in the Laboratory.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103(51):19224-31.


Nagendra, H., & Ostrom, E. (2008). Governing the commons in the new millennium: A diversity of institutions for natural resource management. Retrieved from


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