Tragedy of the Commons as Conventional Wisdom

Earlier this year, I co-authored with (Marco Janssen, Rimjhim Aggrawal and Skaidra Smith-Heisters) a paper on how Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is used in university-level education.

Here is a nice cartoon from that highlights the general message of this tragedy:


Hardin’s original message, however, was very incomplete. Unfortunately, what we found in a survey of undergraduate instructors in sustainability and environmental education, is that many share Hardin’s incomplete and misleading version without regard to the vast literature that expands on this old story.  You see, Hardin was using this metaphor of an open access commons (an area shared by all with no rules governing its use) as a way of describing his life boat ethics.  Hardin’s (twisted) logic was that the earth was being overpopulated and rich countries would be overrun by poor, overbreeding countries.  This was his tragedy of the commons.

What we found through our survey is that many instructors continue to use this simple version of the commons without governance without referencing the work of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom or that of countless others that shows that people can and often do find means of governing the commons – either through self-imposed regulation or other means.

We hope that continuing to draw attention to how people self-govern, we can move past Hardin’s tragedy and work towards better collective outcomes.

Citation:  Marco A. Janssen, Skaidra Smith-Heisters, Rimjhim Aggarwal & Michael L. Schoon (2019) ‘Tragedy of the commons’ as conventional wisdom in sustainability education, Environmental Education Research, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2019.1632266

A Sabbatical in Ecuador

In the run-up to our move to Ecuador, we were often asked “Why Ecuador”.  In the coming weeks, I’ll highlight some of our reasons for wanting to come here as a family – the people, the culture, the tranquility (apart from the recent civil unrest), the environment, etc.   For now, I want to briefly mention some of the local projects that I’m fortunate enough to research.

To begin, we’re living in Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, located up in the Andes  (8500 ft of elevation) in the southern part of the country.  Here’s a photo of the iconic cathedral in the city center.


And here’s a photo of one of the several rivers that flows through town.  It’s the Rio Yanuncay, right next to our home, with people washing their clothes as a festival is about to start in the background.


The first research project that I’m working on is in the Galapagos.  With colleagues at the Darwin Foundation, we are looking at the history of co-management arrangements in the Galapagos. In particular, we are examining the aftermath of the creation of a large marine protected area around Wolf and Darwin Islands.  This resulted in a breakdown of the co-management group due to increased restrictions on local fishers.

The second research project is in the Amazon, working with David Manuel-Navarrete, Tod Swanson and his field school at Iyarina, linking indigenous culture and the environment through language immersion (Kichwa, Wao, Achuar, etc).  It’s a beautiful setting, right on the Rio Napo (See photo).  One aspect of my research on collaboration that David and I are exploring is about what collaboration even means when we look at indigenous cultures of collective life and livelihood.


The third research project is in Cajas National Park, which is a core part of a newly created Man and Biosphere Reserve.  This is a beautiful Páramo landscape of the high Andes and is the source of Cuenca’s water supply – one of the few in Latin America that I’m comfortable telling short-term visitors that they can drink.  The park management, including our dear friend, Jose Caceras, actually falls under the auspices of ETAPA, the water utility – a great example of ecosystem services in practice.

Here, we are again looking at collaboration and conflict in environmental governance.  Cajas is a wonderful, well-run protected area, but it has conflict with neighboring campesinos, with potential mining interests, and with a highway that runs through the middle of the park.  We are looking at mechanisms to mitigate conflict and improve overall outcomes.  Also in Cajas, there is a humorous story about the local Bigfoot or Monster of Cajas.  Here’s a view of one of the hundreds of lakes in the park:

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The Strikes in Ecuador

I’ve been meaning to write about our move to Cuenca, Ecuador for a sabbatical year for some time.  Then, when the nationwide strikes began, I thought that maybe I should wait until they were over.  The protests ended last Monday, and the kids returned to school last Tuesday, October 15th, after closing on the 2nd as the strike took effect.

For those that are unfamiliar with what happened (thank you, US media organizations), here are two takes. Feel free to read a few of my comments below the second perspective.

The first is an overview from “The Economist” and gives a fairly traditional center-right perspective:  The Economist’s Take.  For a leftist perspective, see these interview excerpts courtesy of Lo de Loja (apologies that I don’t have a link):

I want to help you understand that the protests are not only about the raise in oil prices, but also involve many corruption issues that only a few Ecuadorians know about. A couple of months ago, the government’s agreement with the IMF leaked and a group of economists from the “Foro de Economía Alternativa y Heterodoxa” (a forum of intellectuals that study the economic and social aspects of our country) made a tour of Ecuador to let people know about the possible issues that might result from this agreement. The interview below was made by “Lo del momento Loja” with one of the economists that belong to the forum: Juan Carlos Torres. Here’s what Torres had to say:
Juan Carlos Torres has a Masters of Economics, and has worked on UTPL for several years in the  economics department. A few days ago he was interviewed about his opinion of the new policies adopted by President Moreno. Here’s an extract of what this professional thinks:
Economist: This government has a very poor level of popularity and it’s very likely that there will be instability after the policies are declared. The government is being very careful. Last week the Vice President asked the people to understand these new rules. I agree, however, I think what we need to understand is that we are facing a problem that was created on purpose. This is the Foro de Economía Alternativa y Heterodoxa’s position.  To be honest, we think this is a fact. This “crisis” is for the purpose of creating an excuse to take over 50.000 million dollars from public infrastructure through privatization (for example, the CNT, all the hydroelectric facilities,  the Pacifico Bank, the Esmeraldas refinery, and the concession of all the highways in the country). If the people behind this crisis achieve their goal they will harm the country for decades, and will make a windfall for their own families for generations to come.
E: Right now the economy is shrinking which means that the level of poverty is increasing. People have less money in their pockets to buy less food and clothing. In these circumstances, it is crazy for Moreno to institute a price increase that will, certainly, make everything more expensive. For a government it’s good to add new taxes when the economy is expanding because there is money in the hands of the citizens.  But this is not now the case, so the effect will be negative. What does a negative economic effect mean? It means everything will become more expensive. As a result, the higher prices will go to the end user or consumer (almuerzos, medicine, cab and bus rates, etc). What would this increase cause? It will cause poverty and social reactions (they are happening right now). I see Ecuador as a sleeping elephant. It’s been quiet, hasn’t said anything and this could be the last touch that will wake it up.  The final straw.  This is a giant that for sure will shake the government.
There are more things to talk about here as well. Companies are supposed to pay an advance in income tax. However, many companies evade taxation, specifically the big ones, because they buy assets they don’t need. For instance, there are companies that buy many cars for the members of their families so when tax time comes they declare less profits. In this way they harm the government and also the workers because they will get less profits too. Moreno has decided to eliminate the advance income tax, and this conveys a message: “you are free to evade taxes.” Under this logic Moreno benefits the strong companies and punishes the small ones.
E:This agreement was already signed in the document with the IMF. They will do this sooner or later and this tax will be taken from the medium and low class, not the large entreprises.
E:If these policies are applied the following things could happen:
There could be an increase of poverty and crime. One thing is considered a consequence of the other. The higher the poverty, the higher the crime rate. When a person is fired and doesn’t have opportunities to work, because he or she has kids to feed, then they decide to work as informal vendors.  There is also a significant number of unemployed who choose to rob or assault people. All of this will be a result of the agreement with the IMF which, by the way, was not necessary. I have to say it again, it was NOT necessary to get a loan from the IMF. That was a political move to have an excuse to privatize every single profitable public company in Ecuador. I’ll give you another example, right now Moreno is trying to transfer the public oil companies to the private sector. This means the private sector will make more profits and only a small percentage will go to the government. In other words: they will eat the flesh and we’ll have the bones. In the last government, we had a contract for participation and it was changed to a contract of production. That means Ecuador got 80% of the cost of the barrels of oil and the companies got 20%. Moreno is working to change that and reverse it. 80% for the oil companies and 20% for Ecuador.
E: In just one year of his government we had 700,000 new poor people (June 2018 – June 2019). The previous government took 2 million people out of poverty in about eight years. This shows us what the approach of this government is to social wellbeing. It is the zero sum approach of business, where some people are making profits while others will suffer the consequences.
E: For Loja the problem could be even worse. The second most important type of income for Loja Province is construction. This government has cut investment in social work. It’s been a while since they stopped using labour in this sector, therefore, these people don’t have a job, they buy fewer goods causing shops to hire less people.  It’s all a domino effect.
E: I think the people in Loja are more pacific. During the Correa government, there were no strikes or protests. For about 14 years, people haven’t been part of a strike, so new generations are not familiar with these kind of happenings. However, I think it’s important to make people aware of the fact that if we don’t protest it’s because we agree with the new policies. If we don’t raise our voice these elite groups will take everything. Let’s remember these groups haven’t been in power for about 12 years and now they are back in power and want to take back everything they couldn’t control in the past years.
E: At present, we have the right to rest on Saturday and Sunday but this is something we fought for and won. The same thing happened with 8 hrs of work. At first people had to work 18 hrs a day. That was a right we won after several battles. In Ecuador we have a 40 hour work week, and we work 5 days per week. The government is looking to make us work from Monday to Saturday. If you are an employee and your employer asks you to come work on Saturday you will have to. The elimination of these labor rights affect families.
Another thing that will affect the workers is the elimination of the employer’s retirement pension. For instance, if someone works in a company he/she has the right to retire with a pension paid by the employer besides the one given by IESS. The new policies want to eliminate this right. Young workers don’t notice this because it’s a decision they are taking from the future. They will mess with you when you are older and you don’t have the strength and energy to fight for your rights. In other words, they will eliminate your right to have  a decent old age.
E: If the government affects the labour rights they affect every single family. If they affect the families they affect the society. I see society as a big building made of many different bricks, every brick represents one family. The government is weakening the families. They don’t care if the “building” falls apart, and they don’t care about the families. All they want to do is make money, and this is how I sum up what’s happening: GREED
Our government has been captured by powerful economic groups. How else would you explain the economy shrinking while bank profits go up? From June 2018 to June 2019 the profits of the banks increased in 40%. How could you explain this? This is happening because the government is transferring money from the middle and low class pockets to the coffers of the big banks. The banks need to be regulated. There’s an entity that has the mission to regulate them but it has also been captured by the banks.
The only thing we can’t do is “stay quiet and say nothing.” We have to let the government know we don’t agree. This is only the first part of these policies. There’s a second part they haven’t posted yet. We’ll talk about it in the future.
Date of the interview: September 30
Economist: Juan Carlos Torres
Forum: Foro de Economía Alternativa y Heterodoxa
And back to my commentary…
From our very privileged perspective, our lives were minimally affected.  We had cooking fuel throughout the protests, something that people in Cuenca are still struggling to get access to nearly a week after the road blockades ended.  We were limited to hot water between 6-9 AM and 7-10 PM in our building.  The kids were home from school for two weeks.  Given that many roads were blocked, we stayed close to home.  It felt a bit like a long string of snow days.  We had a full refrigerator, even as the grocery stores emptied.  But the strike was short enough that most restaurants stayed open, even with limited fare.
With young children, we stayed away from all of the protests in the city center.  We watched the news of burning buildings in Quito, of thousands of indigenous marchers shutting down the major cities and the Pan American Highway.  We saw recordings of acts of violence by police and military as well as by the thugs that always seem to turn up during civil unrest.  But we also went to the park and watched our children and many others playing peacefully.  We walked along the beautiful rivers of Cuenca.  In our surroundings, it was tranquil with no sounds of traffic.
However, the biggest effect on us was psychological.  What happens if this continues?  What happens if the groceries can’t be restocked?  Flights were canceled and roads were blockaded.  It wasn’t as if there were easy solutions if the situation deteriorated.  Again, the chances seemed slim.
It made me think of many of my sustainability colleagues that work with food systems and people confronting the challenges of food insecurity.  The looming threat doesn’t go away.  The challenges remain.

Historical Study of a Mexican Ejido

Working with Carolin Antoni, a visiting scholar from the Universidad de San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and her doctoral advisors, we have created a resilience assessment of a social-ecological system in an ejido in Laguna de Mante, Mexico.


Figure 1: Jaguar on patrol in Laguna de Mante (from Huaxtecaonline)

The objective of this study was to identify key (external and internal) drivers of change in this SES and their role in the historical development of a tropical landscape in Northern Mexico, now dedicated to industrial sugarcane production. We used the adaptive cycle metaphor to identify and explain the phases and transitions that the region of Laguna de Mante went through since the 1940s.


Figure 2:  The Adaptive Cycle (from the Resilience Alliance)

In particular, we wanted to understand how the system changed over time and what the key drivers of change were.  We were interested at social, economic, and ecological outcomes and whether the current state of the system was stable and resilient to the current context and whether it was likely to remain so to future drivers such as climate change or trade regime modifications.


Stay tuned as this works its way through the publishing gauntlet.

Governance and Geoengineering

I had the good fortune of participating in a workshop on geoengineering last week (April 5th), organized by Elisa Graffey and ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.  For those that aren’t familiar with the topic, here are a couple great overviews of the discussion that the workshop organizers shared:

Here is a quick overview of the technologies in picture form (Courtesy of the Climate Viewer website):


You’ll see that the technologies fit into two broad categories. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which included all of the carbon capture technologies that you hear about in the coal industry discussions, is about removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The second type of technology is solar radiation management (SRM), which is about blocking some of the solar radiation from the earth’s atmosphere.

I’m not an expert on this subject, and I was attending to help understand the governance challenges.  Clearly, there are many issues to consider ranging from technical know-how to scalability, from moral and ethical implications to difficulties with experimentation and irreversibility.  The two interrelated challenges that I’d like to raise are:

  1. The capacity to act unilaterally and affect climatic conditions globally, and
  2. Who gets to “control” the global thermostat.

Some of these technologies – iron fertilization, spraying sulfates in the atmosphere, cloud seeding, and others – are inexpensive enough that they could be undertaken by a single country or even by wealthy individuals.  However, the ramifications would go beyond the borders of any individual country, affecting global temperatures, precipitation patterns, biodiversity levels, and many other knock-on effects.  In this situation, how are global decisions to be reached?  How are rogue nations (or other groups) to be contained? What are the collective responses to unilateral action?

These questions all relate to this second point.  If we reach a technological and scientific stage where we can effectively control the global temperature, how do we choose where to set it?  Do we rely on historical patterns?  If so, at what point in history?  Pre-industrial? The 1950s?  What if Russia wants to have a longer growing season?  What if island nations want more ice in Greenland to prevent sea level rise?  Of course, this oversimplifies, as temperature is not the only thing that changes.  What if the US or China acts to increase rainfall locally at the expense of other places?  What if changing temperatures affect the seasonality of monsoons or the runoff of glaciers and snowfields?

Clearly, the lists of questions can go on endlessly.  And clearly, there are no easy answers.  These are the challenges that we confront.  My hope is that raising some of these questions in this format would be enlightening to others that haven’t given it much thought yet.

I’d like to end with one final concern that underpins all of this – the moral hazard of such interventions.  At the end of the day, we still need to think about how we want to change our global emissions of carbon.  The technologies listed above do not target changing emissions and all have ramifications.  The ultimate question is what type of world do we want to live in.

Spending time in Prison

This past Monday I spent the day in the Florence Prison complex with the Heber Wild Horse Collaborative where we learned all about how inmates gentle and train wild horses and prepare them for adoption under the BLM.  The facility has two parts – one for housing horses and burros and keeping them healthy for adoption and another for training the animals. The photo here is of my doctoral student, Julie Murphree, and the BLM coordinator for this facility, John Hall.  They are standing above the chutes where the horses and burros are processed upon arrival.


The program is fascinating with high levels of care for the animals, successful adoption rates of animals leaving the program, and skill development for inmates.  The actual work looked very enjoyable to me and worthwhile.

The challenge it seems is one of scalability.  The training process creates a bottleneck, given the number of horses and burros in the wild, the capacity of the trainers, and the number of potential adopters.  As a collaborative, it’s interesting to align this option within a suite of strategies that could be used in cases where horse or burro populations exceed the capacity of the landscape.

And in case you’re interested in adoption, here is a photo of some of the adorable burros:



New Working Paper on Collaboration

Building on a workshop last November in Oaxaca, my lab group in the Center for Behavior, Institutions, and the Environment at ASU has recently published a working paper on success factors for effective environmental management.  This work builds on several great papers published over the last decade as well as field work by my students and collaborators to substantiate this research.

We put this together as a practitioner’s brief that could be used by people in the field working to build or strengthen collaborations.  There is no fancy work here, just a collection of findings that we hope can help people achieve better outcomes and accomplish their goals.

This is the first part of our work towards understanding how these factors change under varying contexts.  We are building a database and examining multiple cases from around the world with a goal to improve how groups of people work together across borders and boundaries.