11 December 2018

Article by Tine De Moor in Science

Historical analysis shows us what really matters when striving towards resilience in commons

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Prof. Tine De Moor states in an article in Science that historical, longitudinal analysis is needed to learn what really matters when striving towards resilience in commons. This analysis is vital in order to support contemporary commons with scientifically supported advice today. De Moor was invited by Science to give the historian’s perspective, for the special issue related to the 50th anniversary of Garett Hardin’s article The Tragedy of the Commons.

The Tragedy of the Commons

Hardin proposed that commons, or collectively shared resources, are inevitably doomed to perish. He argued that the users of a common – he uses the example of a pasture of grass where farmers could graze their cattle – will always end up exhausting it, as they will aim to maximize their profits, following their selfish pursuits. In his example, farmers put all their cattle on the pasture and due to a lack of rules and communication the pasture is overexploited and of no use to anybody in the end.

Rules for the Commons

What Hardin did not realize, and what was later brought forward by Elinor Ostrom, is that many of these commoners did make rules and abided by it, thus ensured fair use and resilience. Although commons in the early modern period and medieval times faced challenges, environmental and political – much like today, we know from preserved documents that they did a pretty good job at surviving, often centuries long. And unlike Hardin suggested, they made rules in order to maximize the use they got out of their shared resource and adapt to unforeseen circumstances, enabling these commons to survive for sometimes hundreds of years.

What is often not done within the subject of commons, and what makes our approach different is, I think, that we analyse commons from a longitudinal, historical perspective; we do take history serious: a successful common in our view is one that has managed to survive several generations of commoners, so at least 150-200 years.

"Although the commoners we are interested in may no longer be alive", states De Moor, "we still have written statements in archives about how they managed the common. These illustrate what rules they made and how these evolved over time, enabling us to see if there are patterns in the regulations of those commons that managed to survive for centuries.”

The evolution of sanctions

Interesting is to see that many of those rules fit rather well into the design principles outlined by Ostrom in her book Governing the Commons. However, historical research also shows that some of these rules need a bit of modification. A specific type of sanctioning (graduated sanctioning) that was assumed by Ostrom as being one of the important instruments to prevent freeriding seems to be very rare in historical commons. De Moor: “It may be that the cases that were studied by Ostrom were in a specific situation whereby that specific sanctioning was used, but our historical cases don’t show that they are particularly important for commons to survive in the long run. We believe that it is more important to look at the evolution of sanctions and try to find out how sanctioning evolved over time.”

Commons that survived longest invested least in sanctions.


De Moor has reason to believe that we may be overestimating the importance of sanctioning for the resilience of the commons. “Commons that survived longest invested least in sanctions.This is relevant for commons and other forms of institutions for collective action, such as the many new cooperatives that are emerging today.”

environmental resources

An example of the value of historical analysis for commons can be found in the way in which we manage our environmental resources.  "Historical analysis has taught us that these resources can be governed sustainably by commoners themselves without overusing it, as long as they are aware of the limits of the resource and sufficiently involved in the management and decision-making processes. Especially in Europe, the concept of ‘commons’ has become a real buzzword, which, hopefully, will help people to understand again what the limitations are of the resources we have and how we should manage these in the future", states De Moor. 

Future of Citizen-based Initiatives

Interdisciplinary research is important in order to tie historical analysis to research in other social sciences (sociology, law, economics, anthropology etc.) on the same topic. “This is also what we try to do in our Future of Citizen-based Initiatives (FOCI) Hub at Utrecht University, where we bring together researchers from different disciplines and faculties and share this knowledge with those people that are involved in these modern day commons, and in a broader sense various forms of citizen-based initiatives.”

resilience of contemporary commons

Another good example of how we analyse historical commons from a longitudinal and interdisciplinary perspective is the Modelling institutional dynamics in historical commons (MIDI) project in cooperation with the University of Delft, and Linnaeus University (Sweden). De Moor: “Here we actually use techniques developed to study historical rules to uncover patterns in rule making and their development over time. Historical, longitudinal (and interdisciplinary) research thus presents us with a basis for scientifically supported advice for resilience of contemporary commons.”

Prof. dr. Tine De Moor. Foto: Ed van Rijswijk

Tine de Moor

Tine de Moor is a historian, and also connected to Institutions for Open Societies - an interdisciplinary research area of Utrecht University focused on the development and expansion of healthy open societies everywhere. She holds the chair Institutions for collective action in historical perspective at Utrecht University.