Tragedy Does Not Have to Define Our Management


Anderies JM, Janssen MA (2012) Elinor Ostrom (1933–2012):
Pioneer in the Interdisciplinary Science of Coupled Social-Ecological Systems.
PLoS Biol 10(10): e1001405. 
doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001405
Image credit: Courtesy of Indiana University.

Following a link from Aditya Anupkumar on Twitter, I read this excellent article from Tim Harford in the Financial Times contrasting approaches to “the tragedy of the commons” between Garrett Hardin, the coiner of the term, and Elinor Ostrom.

To review, the tragedy of the commons refers to the conundrum of managing natural resources that require collective sacrifice, but individual incentives are to over harvest.

Hardin saw this tragedy as inevitable, and advocated for strict policies to reduce overpopulation. He made the assumption that all situations in which a commons was at stake would play out in the tragic manner that he described.

On the other hand, Ostrom observed successful collective management of natural resources, and derived principles from those observations.

“These principles included effective monitoring; graduated sanctions for those who break rules; and cheap access to conflict-resolution mechanisms. . . Lin’s only golden rule about common pool resources was that there are no panaceas.”

Note that I can’t provide any more quotations from the original Financial Times article, as they have a rather strict copyright policy.

Something that stood out to me was Ostrom’s observation that the complexity of problems of the commons rendered top-down policy largely ineffective. What was effective was a community driven “polycentric” approach, following such principles as Ostrom outlined above. Polycentrism is a term which means “a political or cultural system which contains many different centres, especially centres of authority or control.” School systems could rightfully be said to embody that concept.

Reading this, I was struck by how this approach to managing complexity mirrors a vision for collaboration between political divides I cherish for the model of schools as ecosystems, which I’ve written more about on “Beyond Ideology“:

  • The idea of minimizing top down control with a goal towards community self-governance, and a restoration of human dignity
  • A focus on a methodology demonstrated to be effective
Our management of complex public systems and resources does not have to be tragic. With the proper recognition for the necessity of community driven collaboration, rather than the infantile broad dismissal polarized “sides” have for one another, public education can be effectively managed.
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