The “Problem” of the Commons
Located 30 miles from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the island of Nantucket has no traffic lights. Instead, drivers respond to stop signs, rotaries and courtesy. More often than not, if a walker or a biker needs to cross the street, cars stop. When someone is making a left turn or leaving a parking lot, cars wait.
Nantucket’s lack of traffic lights started me thinking about Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom who researched how we abuse the free goods that we share. Called the tragedy of the commons, in a communal pasture, we overgraze our cows. In a workplace refrigerator, we create a mess. Dr. Ostrom believed though, that when people care about their common pasture or refrigerator, the tragedy of the commons becomes a solvable problem of the commons.
Telling about a communal pasture in Switzerland, Dr. Ostrom explained how farmers avoided overgrazing by creating voluntary rules. “What we have ignored,” she said after her Nobel Prize was announced, “is what citizens can do . . . as opposed to just having someone in Washington or at a far, far distance make a rule.”
Perhaps Dr. Ostrom would have seen another example of her work in Nantucket. There have been no meetings in Nantucket for everyone to discuss our commonly “owned” roads and yet abuse is rare. Is it because we have a fundamental drive to cooperate that sometimes overrides our short-term self-interest?
Elinor Ostrom died on June 12. As the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, a political scientist, and someone who paused during a radio interview to go to her backyard to observe a beautiful deer, she sounds fascinating. You might want to read more about her work and life here. And, in a classic 1968 article, Garrett Hardin describes the tragedy if the commons.