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Global Environmental Politics 3.1 (2003) 148-150

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Elinor Ostrom, Thomas Dietz, Nives Dolsak, Paul C. Stern, Susan Stonich, and Elke U. Weber, eds. 2002. The Drama of the Commons.Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change, National Research Council. Washington: National Academy Press.

The ancients warned that that which belongs to all is cared for by none; what we call the tragedy of the commons may be coterminous with human society itself. The essential dynamic sounds simple: the interests of individuals sometimes do not align with those of groups to which they belong; if individuals pursue their interests unrestrained, they can undermine the well-being of the group. In particular, when people share a resource like a river or a fishery that is held in common, individuals can and often do overexploit it to the detriment of all. What is required, Garrett Hardin wrote in 1968, is "mutual coercion mutually agreed to"—that is, restraining institutions in some form. Yet the dark warning that individual interests destroy commons explains too much. For government itself is a public good, subject to a set of perverse incentives like a common-pool resource. How have humans managed to govern their communities for millennia and overcome the simple logic of selfishness?

The Drama of the Commons appraises studies of this question. The book is an ambitious collection of thirteen essays, written by scholars from political science, anthropology, psychology, decision analysis, economics, and law. In an age of information overload, one is tempted to read selectively, but this is one Hydra-headed work that deserves to be seen whole. What one perceives, standing back, is a notable assault on an age-old mystery of human societies. This body of research is rich and suggestive in its perceptions of and implications for public policy and governance, even though the editors admit that "knowledge has not progressed to a point at which managers can be offered detailed guidance" (p.445).

In the aftermath of the Cold War and with the popularity of anti-government politics, a globalizing world has had little guidance on how to meet its public responsibilities beyond the incomplete nostrums of pop-capitalism. The answer of Bismarck, Stalin, and the New Deal—a powerful state acting on behalf of a modernist industrialism—is defeated or discredited. But in place of often-myopic top-down rule, we have only general injunctions to provide legal rights and transparency so as to "get the incentives right," enabling individual actors to pursue economic growth.

It is possible that individual economic actors—a world of consumers and largely corporate producers—constitute the only public sphere that a globalized set of mass societies can have. The decline of social welfare and international development assistance, together with the rearguard defense of civil society and environmental quality by nongovernmental organizations of left and right, suggest that we cannot dismiss such a pessimistic reading.

The Drama of the Commons shows scholars at work on an alternative: the idea that seeking ways of governing shared resources and nurturing common [End Page 148] values is also part of human nature, side by side with the pursuit of individual interest. Such a search for governance can be a bottom-up or lateral process, in which learning and borrowing among communities can sometimes produce a more robust and enduring order. The important idea here is that this is a search, sometimes successful in its attempt to overcome the logic of selfishness. So far, this line of investigation has not produced a formula that reliably produces civil communities or that sustains the resources they depend upon. In this, the study of the commons lacks the clarity of microeconomics and its simplistic but compelling portrayal of self-interest as engine of coordination and change.

The conversation about how we go beyond self-interest is conducted in many of the dialects of the social sciences. The dialects are marvelous in their diversity. The comments below reflect one reader's parochialism faced with a cosmopolitan group of scholars.

The introductory and concluding chapters, written by teams led by Elinor Ostrom, supply...