When I moved into my house last August, the first thing I noticed about the kitchen was a blue kettle with a black bottom, sitting on the stove. Even from afar, I could tell the kettle was dirty. The color was faded from grease stains and overuse. It was dinghy, but I still loved how it added color to the kitchen.
One afternoon, in an effort to deep clean, my roommate decided to wipe down the kettle. Maybe, we thought, we could get it to shine with some dish soap and elbow grease. To our shock and surprise, the black bottom, stained from “wear and tear” was not black at all. It was bright blue, just like the rest of the kettle! After rigorous cleaning, the black disappeared to reveal the beautiful blue.
This is just one example of what economists call the tragedy of the commons. Our shared kitchen isn’t always as clean according to my standards because I’m not the sole owner and can’t always dictate my housemates’ behavior. When someone (I’m not pointing fingers…I’m just saying it wasn’t me) turned the blue kettle black, she might have thought to herself, “Someone else will clean it up” or “Why would I clean something I’m just going to use later anyway?” or “It’s not my kettle so I’m not responsible for its cleanliness or upkeep; that’s my housemate’s job” or “Who believes in germs anyway?”
Like the kettle in my kitchen, there are other examples of commonly owned property like land or water within a community. How can we keep commonly owned property clean and sustainable?
Some economists solve the commons problem by arguing for government regulation. In the case of the black kettle, I could have sued my roommates for the damages to provide an incentive to never dirty the kitchen appliances ever again. Other economists say, “Leave it up to the markets by assigning property rights!” Following that advice, I could have claimed property rights over cleaning the kitchen and charged my housemates every time I clean up (That’ll be $1.50 for wiping down the stove, please and thank you).
Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize laureate of 2009, on the other hand, offers a different solution without the government or market.
Elinor Ostrom spent her life studying commons problems similar to the case of the black kettle. Instead of taking the scientific approach to theories by testing hypotheses, she first observed reality and then analyzed her observations to form a theory. What she found through studying commonly owned property was that when a community pools resources and shares ownership, they form rules and penalties for violations of the property to ensure both ecological and economical sustainability. When all members of the community agree on the rules and penalties, the property can be used by all members without being destroyed or depleted.
Elinor Ostrom showed that when individuals are held responsible for their actions, the tragedy disappears. The commonly owned property is not misused, because there are direct consequences for destroying the property. This allows everyone to have equal access and to benefit from using the property without fear of someone else using it all.
Her approach uses human ingenuity and community involvement to solve social problems. However, her framework breaks down if any of her assumptions are not present. Some difficulties can occur when the community is too large, some citizens are not represented, or if there isn’t adequate enforcement or penalty. Without these, trust breaks down and the solution is compromised.
Elinor applied her framework to the groundwater problem in California. She looked at both private and public producers, as well as the citizens affected and the local government involved. She found that by democratically creating rules surrounding the withdrawing of water, citizens were more apt to follow the rules because they were held accountable for their actions. The more rule-abiding the citizens were, the more trust formed and reinforced the agreements. From the solutions to the groundwater problem, she found that building trust is central to solving any social problem.
Applying Elinor Ostrom’s insights to my kitchen, my three housemates and I decided on some rules. While these rules are not strictly enforced, it generally works out because we all get along and trust each other. We’re not perfect, but I promise we have a clean kitchen. If you are ever in the area, please stop by for a cup of tea brewed from our now clean, bright blue kettle.