by EJ Tangel
In his 1968 Tragedy of the Commons,  biologist Garrett Hardin famously conflated people for simple machines: self-interested rational economic actors. Using the example of grazing rights for ranchers he showed that land held in common must eventually be destroyed since it made “economic sense” for each of the ranchers to use as much as possible. Conservatives cleaved to this work to proffer private property with all the fervency of religious salvation. We cannot survive the collectivity of the commons, it was said; people only take care of what is theirs, directly. Sadly, Hardin (and many others besides) was blinded to both the complexity of people and the complexity of their relations. Although Hardin later qualified his thesis criticizing “the unmanaged commons”, we have yet to recover our ability to see clearly.
Within mainstream economics there was a glimmer of hope in 2009 when Elinor Ostrom won the Noble prize in economics by showing that people do, in fact work together to preserve a common source of their welfare.  Ostrom was the first woman to win a Noble Prize in economics, and interestingly, she is political scientist to boot—although she might better be described as simply broadly curious and able, and perhaps, humble. 
Ostrom found numerous cases in which a public commons served the many and did so reliably, resiliently and sustainably over the long term. “Economic sense” was not the sine qua non that so many believed.
continue reading...at Environmental Critique, a publication of DePaul University's Institute for Nature and Culture
 Ostrom, Elinor Sustainable development and the tragedy of commons, Stockholm Resilience Centre TV, in which she very nicely outlines the problem and rethinks the commons in 8 minutes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByXM47Ri1Kc