Skip to Main content

Governing the commons

In economic literature the term commons (resources used by many individuals in common in an agreed way) was used for decades in a context of Tragedy of the Commons. In 1968 Hardin argued that the users of commons are caught in an inevitable process that leads to the destruction of the resource on which they depend because the “rational” user of commons makes demands on a resource until the expected benefits of his or her actions equal the expected costs. However, many authors have pointed out that Hardin mistakenly wrote ‘commons’ when he meant ‘open access’. In fact, a common can be managed under different property-rights regimes:

Government ownership: where a formal government, whether a local city or a national government, has ownership of the resource and the right to fully determine who can or cannot use it, and under what circumstances;

Private ownership: where a single individual or private firm has full claims to determine use patterns;

Community or common property ownership: where a group of individuals shares rights to ownership; or

No ownership or ‘open access’: which is what Hardin assumed in his illustrative case.

Therefore open access is only one out of four general possibilities that can relate to a commons. Open-access resources can be considered a type of common-pool resource where anyone can enter and/or harvest and the resource thus can be exploited on a first-come, first-served basis because no individual or group has the capacity or the legal power to restrict access (Tietenberg and Lewis, 2009). Individuals making decisions on the basis of benefits and costs to themselves will ignore the common-property externalities they inflict on others. Each individual has no incentive to reduce the rate of use and conserve the resource. Economic theory considers this a ‘market failure’ and suggests several direct consequences, concluding that these resources are often overexploited.

In 1990 Elinor Ostrom provided a unique body of empirical data to explore conditions under which commons problems were solved without the predicted tragic results. In contrast to the proposition of the tragedy of the commons argument, she showed common pool problems are sometimes solved better by voluntary organisations than by a coercive state or privatization of the resources.

Most of the theory and practice of successful management involves resources that are effectively managed by small to relatively large groups living within a single country, which involve nested institutions at varying scales. But some resources— for example, fresh water in an international basin or large marine ecosystems—become effectively depletable only in an international context. Management of these resources depends on the cooperation of appropriate international institutions and national, regional, and local institutions (Ostrom et al 1999).

Trust is an important component of cooperation in the commons. Trust can be achieved comparatively easily in small groups, where people know each other and informal norms are sufficient to stabilize the common welfare. But when the groups become too large and people don’t know each other, institutional structures become extremely important for the maintenance of trust. Controls and sanctions are necessary components to protect the integrity of the commons. Even then however, commons can be successfully maintained only if stakeholders have substantial insight into a potential win-win constellation.

Fisheries and forests are examples of two common-pool resources that are currently of great concern as well as groundwater basins, pastures and grazing systems, lakes, oceans and the earth’s atmosphere. In recent decades ‘… humans have failed to halt the tragedy of massive overfishing of the oceans, major deforestation, and excessive dumping of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, in some specific niches, such as the Maine lobster fishery, the commons are in better condition today than they were a decade or two ago’ (Ostrom, 2008). Part of the reason for the mixed results is that most commons differ vastly from one another. Differences can be found, for example, in resource characteristics, and in socio-economic and cultural contexts and scales. However, granting due importance to management systems and property rights, it must be said that the main driving force of exhaustion of resources is population and economic growth.

Ostrom and her students set of eight design principles, conditions that could facilitate sustained, self-organized management of the commons (Ostrom 2005).

8 Principles for Managing a Commons

1a. User boundaries: Clear boundaries between legitimate users and nonusers must be clearly defined.

1b. Resource boundaries: Clear boundaries are present that define a resource system and separate it from the larger biophysical environment.

2a. Congruence with local conditions: Appropriation and provision rules are congruent with local social and environmental conditions.

2b. Appropriation and provision: The benefits obtained by users from a common-pool resource (CPR), as determined by appropriation rules, are proportional to the amount of inputs required in the form of labor, material, or money, as determined by provision rules.

  1. Collective-choice arrangements: Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.

4a. Monitoring users: Monitors who are accountable to the users monitor the appropriation and provision levels of the users.

4b. Monitoring the resource: Monitors who are accountable to the users monitor the condition of the resource.

  1. Graduated sanctions: Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and the context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to the appropriators, or by both.
  2. Conflict-resolution mechanisms: Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low-cost local arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials.
  3. Minimal recognition of rights to organize: The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities.
  4. Nested enterprises: Appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

(Cox at al. 2010)

These design principles were deliberately formulated to avoid falling into the trap of being prescriptive and definitive. Instead, Ostrom paid attention to the importance of context and variation, pointing out that it was difficult to explain sustainability of institutions for the management of the commons based on the presence or absence of particular rules (Ostrom 1990). Rather, it is the ability of the rules in use to effectively deal with the physical attributes of the natural resource system (for instance, to deal with the issue that water flows from upstream to downstream, and can be easily polluted downstream by a distant, upstream polluter – while trees in a forest are immovable and can be protected within a relatively defined boundary), cultural relationships between users and ecosystems, and socio-economic and political settings that are important. She stressed that it was the great variety in rules that permitted adaptation, innovation and flexibility, ultimately enabling sustainability (Nagendar et al 2013)

Ostrom (2008) pointed out that the advocacy of a single idealised solution for all common-pool resources has been a key part of the problem instead of the solution. She also argued that many of the most pressing problems future generations will face exist on a global scale, and that establishing effective governance arrangements on this scale has proved to be more difficult than on a local one.

A person who has a right in, or over, common land jointly with another or others is called a commoner.



Cox, M., Arnold, G., Villamayor Tomás S. (2010) A review of design principles for community-based natural resource management.  Ecology and Society, 15(4), 38.

Hardin, G. (1968): The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162 (3859), 1243-1248.

Nagendar, H., Ghate, R., Rao, J. (2013) Governing the commons. Seminar India. 641: 88-93.

Ostrom, E., Burger, J., Field, C. B., Norgaard, R. B., Policansky, D. (1999) Revisiting the commons: local lessons, global challenges. Science284(5412), 278-282.

Ostrom, E. (2005) Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ostrom, E. (2008) The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources. Environment, 50 (4) 9-20.

Tietenberg, T. and Lewis, L. (2009) Environmental and Natural Resource Economics. 8th edition, Pearson International Edition, Addison Wesley, Boston.


For further reading

Fabricius, C., Collins, S. (2007) Community-based natural resource management: governing the commons. Water Policy, 9, 83.

Bollier, D., Helfrich, S. (Eds.). (2014) The wealth of the commons: A world beyond market and state. Levellers Press.


Useful website


This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Sylvia Lorek.

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos.