Manual The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptation (Politics, Science, and the Environment)

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Additionally, the dispersion of responsibilities in a polycentric governance system can make it challenging to hold decision makers accountable for their performance Huitema et al. We therefore specify additional institutional features in the model that may not be integral to the core concept but are associated with achieving the functionality predicted by commons scholars. Our focus here is qualitative description of the elements of a functional polycentric governance system for the commons that necessarily leaves enough generality for contextual application and further development.

Our contribution is to clarify a very complex concept and to focus critical attention on institutional features associated with expected functionality. As such, this article should aid future efforts to operationalize the concept and to develop measurable indicators. Before we embark on this task, we clarify our position and the scope of this undertaking. First, it is not our position that all polycentric governance systems are capable of achieving the advantages examined in this article or of otherwise performing as well as or better than other forms of governance.

Among other things, the effectiveness of a governance system depends upon its objectives e. This raises a second point: the governance model we propose does not address the myriad contextual factors that may impact the functioning of a governance system. Our focus here is on the institutional features that theoretically enhance the functionality of polycentric governance systems in the commons. In section 2 , we briefly trace the history of the concept of polycentricity. In section 3 , we introduce the attributes that form the definitional core of the theoretical model, and in so doing, we clarify ambiguities and highlight open questions in the definition we adopt.

In section 4 , we describe the aforementioned theoretical advantages of polycentric governance systems, and we introduce enabling conditions that specify features that may be necessary or conducive for realizing the advantages. We present the model at the conclusion of section 4 , bringing together the attributes and enabling conditions discussed in sections 3 and 4 and correlating them with the advantages they support.

Finally, we conclude with a discussion of the implications of the model and the challenges that lie ahead for further development and operationalization of polycentricity.

The Struggle to Govern the Commons

The term polycentricity was first used in essays Michael Polanyi published as The Logic of Liberty to describe a method of social organization in which individuals are free to pursue their objectives within a general system of rules Polanyi, ; see also V. Ostrom, a. A decade after the publication of The Logic of Liberty , V.

The theoretical claims concerning polycentricity in metropolitan areas benefited from strong empirical support in the s showing that the provision of police services in polycentric metropolitan areas regularly outperformed more centralized systems in terms of efficiency and certain measures of effectiveness, such as responsiveness E. Ostrom, , p.

Since Ostrom's publication of the design principles in , a growing interest in polycentricity on the part of commons scholars is evident in the number of papers and books that consider the advantages of polycentric governance for sustaining natural resources e. In this literature, the arguments for polycentric governance have evolved beyond improved efficiency, a major objective in public administration.

Indeed, these themes feature explicitly in the theoretical advantages of polycentric governance that emerge from recent commons scholarship. Marshall notes that polycentricity has been associated with advantages such as better access to local knowledge, closer matching of policy to context, reduction of the risk that a resource will fail for an entire region on account of multiple avenues for policy experimentation, improved information transmission due to overlap, and enhanced capacity for adaptive management.

These claims are examined in section 4. First, we introduce the attributes of a polycentric governance system, which comprise the foundation of the theoretical model. The attributes in the theoretical model represent the essential defining characteristics of a polycentric governance system based on V. Reflecting on the seminal paper, Vincent Ostrom later wrote: As formulated by [V. Our rationale for doing so is that we believe it important that the attributes be loyal to the original conceptualization to ensure we do not imagine a substantively different concept.

While there have been multiple formulations of the concept by Vincent Ostrom and others over the years, this particular formulation is a clear and concise articulation of the concept as it was originally conceived. Additionally, we note that even as polycentric governance has been explored in diverse literatures, many scholars continue to use definitions of the concept based on the original conceptualization.

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In devising the attributes, we make minor modifications to the first prong discussed in subsection 3. In the following subsections, we describe and expand upon the attributes. Ostrom's formulation because it better captures the active role that governance units assume in making and enforcing institutions in a particular domain. In fact, V. McGinnis and Ostrom are instructive in this regard: Polycentric governance requires a complex combination of multiple levels and diverse types of organizations drawn from the public, private, and voluntary sectors that have overlapping realms of responsibility and functional capacities.

But what about organizations or individuals—state or nonstate—that lack authority to make rules in a particular governance domain but strongly influence policies or provide critical technical or financial support? That is, the effective functioning of a polycentric governance system often depends upon actors who can lend technical expertise or produce a good or service more efficiently or effectively see V.

Finally, autonomy or independence in decision making is also a fundamental characteristic of polycentric governance systems. The degree of autonomy required to reap the theoretical benefits of polycentric governance systems is an open and fundamental question for which there is little practical guidance in the literature. Ostrom, a, p. Turning to the four integral processes identified by V. This point was fundamental to the claim in V. Their argument was premised on the notion that the entity that provides a public good or service to consumers need not be the same entity that produces it—particularly if it would be more efficient to outsource production to another entity.

This important distinction between production and provision seldom figures into later commons scholarship concerning polycentricity although it remains relevant. With respect to competition, V. For example, municipalities may compete for residents through the provision of cleaner water or more green spaces. Additionally, NGOs may have to compete against one another for the right to lead or influence an environmental initiative undertaken by a political jurisdiction.

In this regard, da Silveira and Richards evaluate the functioning of a polycentric governance system for the Pearl River basin in China. They found that it lacked incentives for cooperation and was characterized by intense competition for resources among its members that undermined its effectiveness and ability to adapt. So long as conflicts do not escalate to a point where the governance system becomes dysfunctional, they can bring about learning and change as different interests, philosophies, and perspectives are aired in the process of deliberation and conflict resolution Dietz et al.

Ostrom and Ostrom point out that conflict is an important indicator of potential losses and that the resolution of conflict can result in a net improvement of economic welfare. Maintaining the capability to resolve conflict is critical, however, and as Dietz et al. Having laid out the core attributes of a polycentric governance system, we turn to the three broad claims concerning the advantages of polycentricity in the governance of natural resource systems.

In describing the logic of these claims, we introduce the enabling conditions in the model, which specify institutional and design features of each attribute that may be necessary or conducive to achieving these advantages. We note that whether an enabling condition is necessary or merely helpful likely depends upon context, and the literature is not sufficiently developed for us to make those distinctions. We also acknowledge that the three advantages are closely related and mutually reinforcing in the sense that realization of one advantage likely contributes to realization of the others.

For example, if a governance system produces institutions that are a good fit for natural resource systems and mitigates risk through incorporation of redundancy, its capacity to adapt to change is likely thereby enhanced. As this suggests, there is substantial overlap among attributes and enabling conditions that support each of the three posited advantages, and one could reasonably argue that all the attributes and enabling conditions are at least helpful, if not necessary, in achieving each of the advantages.

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However, we link the enabling conditions to the advantages they most directly support based on the development of the claims in the literature. Perhaps the most commonly cited theoretical advantage of polycentric governance systems in the commons literature is that they may be capable of adapting to actual or anticipated social and ecological change better than more centralized forms of governance e.

This includes adaptation through the design of new institutions see E. With accumulating evidence signaling an increasing likelihood of nonlinear and abrupt changes in ecosystems Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, , there is considerable interest in designing institutions that allow for adaptation e.

In recent years, commons scholars have also begun to develop empirical support for the proposition that polycentric governance systems exhibit enhanced adaptive capacity e. While the probability that a particular institution will fail is likely high E. Ostrom, , some institutions may well achieve a degree of success. Many other factors bear directly on the realization of adaptive capacity, and in the following subsections we describe the institutional features we identify as being most integral to the claim.

The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptation | NHBS Academic & Professional Books

Were this to happen, some of the advantages ascribed to polycentric governance systems in the commons may not be achieved. Given the improbability that any governance system will ever stumble onto the optimal combination of rules E. Ostrom, , and given that natural resource systems are dynamic and changing, we should never expect the actors in a functional polycentric governance system to settle upon a single policy or approach. Instead, we should expect ongoing experimentation in an effort to continually improve and adapt institutions.

Swift does a remarkable job of explaining the character of the families and their community on this remote island. He paints a vivid portrait of the perils they face from their work — and from climate change, although, despite acknowledging the incessant shrinking of their island, they do not accept the notion of sea level rise. Recommended for anyone with an interest in the Bay and the historic watermen who live there. In Six Degrees, Mark Lynas sketches out what the real, tangible effects of our planet's warming will be, degree by degree — from the loss of coral reefs and mountain glaciers to, ultimately at 6 degrees, the elimination of most life.

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In its long, long history, our planet has experienced five periods of mass extinction, each of which dramatically decreased the diversity of life. Elizabeth Kolbert contemplates the idea of a sixth extinction — the result of climate change — and the ways in which human beings are responsible for changing life on earth in a way no other species has. Promising review: "The writing style is fluent and coherent, and the combination of the topics to give a holistic view before the tragic conclusion was suspenseful yes, although it is non-fiction and very well done.

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Most of the data is not news, especially if you've been following environmental issues and research. It's nice to have all that data organized, compiled and illustrated with solid visuals. Enabling JavaScript in your browser will allow you to experience all the features of our site.

Learn how to enable JavaScript on your browser. Elinor Ostrom is Arthur F. Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. What People are Saying About This Fikret Berkes The early literature on common property struggled with the legacy of Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons,' while the later literature often focused on small-scale, community-based systems to build a new theory.


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The Commons in the New Millennium takes the next logical step forward. Essays in this expertly crafted collection represent common property scholarship that looks to the future, and there are lessons here for alternative ways of devising new institutions to meet the challenges ahead. A useful addition to the literature that will have a wide audience.