Elinor Ostorom, Wintering Laws and Tragedy of Commons

“Unfortunately, many analysts – in academia, special-interest groups, governments, and the press – still presume that common-pool problems are all dilemmas in which the participants themselves cannot avoid producing suboptimal results, and in some cases disastrous results.”

― Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons

In Game Theory there is an interesting concept of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. It refers to a situation where a shared resource is overused by the people using it, even though they know that if they all overuse it then it will run out. Examples are overgrazing on common grasslands, overfishing in rivers or oceans, polluting rivers by releasing effluents in them.

tragedy of commons

For example every Koli (fisherman) in Mumbai knows that if there is too much fishing then eventually fish stocks will run out. If all the fishermen could agree to fish at sustainable levels then the fish stocks could last forever. However, if one fisherman starts to overfish, then others might as well overfish as well to get as much as possible before the stocks run out. It only takes someone to start overfishing to mean that it is then logical for everyone else to overfish.


Citizens of Varanasi should know this concept, here everybody is competing to pollute river Ganga. Crores of rupees have been spent on cleaning Ganga, but tragedy of commons ensures that money goes waste and Ganga gets more polluted every year.

Elinor Ostrom was a economist who studied this phenomenon and came up with solution to resolve tragedy of commons. She won Noble Prize for her research.

elinor ostrom

Based on her extensive work, Ostrom offered eight principles for how commons can be governed sustainably and equitably in a community. These are…

  • Define clear group boundaries,
  • Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  • Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  • Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behaviour.
  • Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  • Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  • Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

swiss cows

Good example of this is a Swiss village where farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow to graze their cows. While this would appear a perfect model to prove the tragedy-of-the-commons theory, Ostrom discovered that in reality there were no problems with overgrazing. That is because of a common agreement among villagers on number of cows that will be allowed to graze. They have what are called as wintering laws, i.e. during winter number of cows who graze is strictly regulated, if any exceeds the number of cows allowed, then he is fined. This prevents overgrazing.

In India polluting of lakes, rivers etc. can be regulated if locals are made responsible for prevention of tragedy of commons.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s