wildlife commons

As a follower of the late Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), I am glad to see Michelle Nijhuis‘s article “The Miracle of the Commons” in Aeon. Nijhuis draws on her book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction (2021), which looks important.

I would offer the following very brief summary as an enticement to read more of the article. We can think of beloved megafauna, like wild elephants and lions, as public resources. Their survival is good for human beings in general, yet individual humans can profit from hunting them one by one.

If we apply a simple tragedy-of-the-commons model, then these beasts are doomed unless “something is done.” And that something must be some kind of enforced prohibition on hunting, perhaps connected to state ownership of the land. However, we should be concerned that the state will use its powers badly–that poachers will bribe wardens, or officials will prove incompetent, or authorities will turn a blind eye to development.

Ostrom found, instead, that communities are entirely capable of managing and protecting vulnerable public resources. They need mechanisms for allocating tasks and benefits and making decisions–and the authority to do so.

Nijhuis shows that communities in Namibia have been very successful at preserving endangered species when permitted–and, to some extent, supported–to manage these commons themselves. This is a perfect example of a commons as neither a “tragedy” (doomed to failure), nor a “comedy” (sure to work out well), but a “drama” whose outcome depends on us.

See also many previous posts about Ostrom.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.