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.