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Abstract

One recurring question in the academic literature on common-pool resources relates to the persistence of “tragic” commons regimes—systems that encourage, or at least tolerate, the inefficient, wasteful, hazardous, or unfair exploitation of a resource that is easily accessed for and diminished by individual use and consumption. Of course, not all commons are tragic: some common-pool resources invite individual access in efficient, fair, and durable ways. Yet many commonly held resources do lie under systems of governance that are not just tragic but persistently and stubbornly so. Often the tragic aspects of such commons regimes are well known; indeed, for some tragic commons regimes, they are almost self-evident. Such persistent and obvious tragic commons regimes invite the obvious question: why do they endure? Some persistent tragic commons regimes are particularly puzzling in this respect, because at times they may appear to hesitate right on the verge of positive transformation, only to revert back to tragic stasis when apparent moments of change present themselves. In this Article, I claim that Texas groundwater law represents just such a persistent and puzzling tragic commons regime. Recent literature has pointed out the ways in which tragically stable commons regimes can resist forces of change and emerging values from rival institutions and analogous commons contexts. In this Article, I pursue a related line of inquiry to examine a different and previously under-examined phenomenon. Using Texas groundwater as an example, I show how an internally dynamic commons regime on the cusp of positive change can be tragically stabilized by values and legal doctrines drawn from rival institutions and analogous commons contexts. I then argue that unless this tragic crossover is decisively broken, the law and institutions that govern Texas groundwater are likely to remain tragically stable.


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