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Abstract

Scholarship on the commons focuses on a diverse set of problems, ranging from crashing fisheries to crowded court dockets. Because we find commons resources throughout our natural and cultural environments, understanding old lessons and learning new ones about the commons gives us leverage to address a wide range of problems. Because the list of resources identified as commons resources continues to grow, the importance of gleaning lessons about the commons will also continue to grow. That being said, while the resources that make up the commons are certainly diverse, so too are the ways scholars depict it and the challenges it faces. Consider, for example, how three of the most prominent commons scholars capture the likeness of the commons: Garrett Hardin, a celebrated ecologist who gave us the concept of the tragedy of the commons, spoke of the commons as an all-out free-forall. Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel Prize winner and a world-renowned political scientist, devoted much of her career to helping us understand how to govern the commons to avoid tragic ends. She showed us that in the commons we often find ways to keep our consumption and that of others at bay. Ostrom also made famous a number of case studies that provide examples of where use of the commons is sustainable for long periods of time, even centuries. Carol Rose, a giant within legal academia, helped us see that sometimes an additional user of the commons leads to positive rather than negative ends. She explained that sometimes we face a comedy of the commons, as opposed to a tragedy. In such a case, the challenge of a commons is not imposing diets or trimming a guest list. Rather, the challenge is drawing additional people into a commons feast. Echoes of these characterizations of the commons are found throughout the commons literature.

 This Essay tries to unify these three stories that we tell and retell about the commons. To do so, it focuses on the strands that bind these stories together into a single narrative. Quite coincidentally, the overarching theme of this larger narrative very much follows the storyline of an extended tragicomedy. And, like any tragicomedy, this narrative has two dominant strands. One strand is plagued with challenges, most of which can be traced back to the internal characteristics of the commons––the nature of the resource, the traits of its users, the way the commons is governed, and the value placed on the commons resource. The second strand is one of hope—that through governance we can overcome these internal challenges and this inertia. However, hope in this context is fragile. Fortunately, even though the storyline is difficult to alter, the end of each commons story is ours to write.


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