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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2010

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Editors' Picks - November/December 2010

FORGET HARDIN: Other Responses to the Tragedy of the Commons

Economia delle di energia e dell'ambiente no. 1 (2009): 35–60.

Global Environmental Change no. 19 (2009): 366–374.

Marine Policy 32, no. 1 (2008): 113–119.

Policy recommendations for the tragedy of the commons have too often been limited to the leviathan of centralized government regulation or unfettered markets that depend upon the discipline of supply and demand. In different ways, these articles explore recent innovations in scholarship and practice for achieving resource sustainability. Networks are central to the pathways for solution explored here, but they are approached in different ways in these three articles. Taken together they provide an introduction to the importance of networks in contemporary governance that will appeal to and inform even readers not enamored with counting interactions among nodes. Further, they provide a rationale for understanding why incorporating networks is not only a preferred governance solution, but unavoidable in the contemporary wired world.

Xavier Basurto and Elinor Ostrom set out to avoid two common traps in the development of a predictive theory of the conditions in which users are able to self-organize and govern the use of a resource over time in a sustainable manner. The “panacea trap” assumes that one size fits all and prescribes a checklist of governance rules or an all-purpose tool for prodding users to do what they otherwise would not. In contrast, the “my-case-is-unique” analytical trap refuses to generalize from comparative cases and instead focuses on history, context, and deep understanding of specific local conditions.

In moving beyond the tragedy of the commons, Basurto and Ostrom draw heavily from the now familiar multi-tier diagnostic framework for common resource problems developed by Ostrom and her colleagues over many years and based upon a large number of studies. The 52 second-tier variables provide a nearly comprehensive list of variables associated with the resource, governance, and user-group conditions related to sustainable management, interactions among them, and different measures of outcomes. No parsimonious scientific study could ever apply so many measures, and, as the authors make clear, the ontology is intended to be neither complete nor universal. Instead, it is a starting point for sorting out what may be going on in any case or set of cases.

The freshest analysis comes in the case studies, all drawn from the northern Gulf of California in Mexico. Deft application of a subset of the variables in the multi-tiered framework explains why only two of the three small-scale fisheries self-organized, even though at superficial glance the nature of the problems and level of human capacity available for response would seem identical. Ironically, the Seri, members of an indigenous community long isolated from social and technological advances, were more successful at protecting their resources over the long term than nearby neighbors to the north and south. According to the authors, a sense of place and knowledge of the resource base were critical, as was the formalization of property rights. The authors write, “It is likely that developing a holistic knowledge of the system was facilitated by the Seri inhabitance of the same area and interaction with the same marine species for thousands of years” (47). Another critical determinant of the fisher community's ability to self-organize was the significant support and leadership from university researchers and funding organizations that enabled them to afford the costs of self-organizing. In the terminology of network analysis, it was important that there were bonding networks among fishers and bridging networks connecting them to external sources of legitimacy and other resources.

Orjan Bodin and Beatrice Crona argue that social networks can be more important than the existence of formal institutions for insuring sustainability. Not all networks are created equal, however. These authors review the still quite limited literature on the relationship of network characteristics with social processes pertinent to natural resources governance. Of particular interest are numbers of ties, degree of network cohesion, subgroup inter-linkages, network centralization, and actor centrality and how each affects environmental governance. This categorization of different structural characteristics is quite common in network analysis.

The probability for joint action increases with a higher density of social interaction, leading to a greater possibility for social relations and trust. This probability is enhanced if the ties include a diversity of actors with access to new knowledge. When a network “hangs together” or exhibits cohesion or has strong bonding ties, it is more likely to be able to act in concert. On the other hand, bridging ties, or ties that connect different subgroups, provide access to external resources that are often needed. Bridging ties are especially effective if they have vertical links that connect what may be localized groups to different levels of authorities. While centralization may facilitate prioritizing and coordination, there are several problems with highly centralized networks: They become vulnerable to the removal of a few central actors and overly centralized networks risk marginalization of peripheral actors and loss of legitimacy. The authors conclude that the social network perspective holds great potential in studying natural resource processes ranging from the local to the global.

Mark Gibbs's article on network governance in fisheries makes it clear that whatever their merits, networks are here to stay. The article notes that command and control results in a lack of trust. Managing the resource cannot be done without interacting with those exploiting the resource, and without trust, management is bound to fail. The author concludes:

Network governance of fisheries is an emergent property of globalization processes and the increasing wealth of many nations. Centralized fisheries management agencies accustomed to a strong degree of control over the generation and dissemination of information critical to fisheries management now find themselves less able to manage the governance processes in exclusivity and must adapt to having influential and well-informed new stakeholders and institutions demanding participation in fisheries management processes. (18)

This article is also useful for a general overview of recent history of fisheries management processes.

-Helen Ingram, University of California, Irvine, California


The Athens Dialogues on Quality of Life

The Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation is sponsoring an international symposium on Greek culture and its contributions to modern society entitled The Athens Dialogues: An International Conference on Culture and Civilization. The final event will be held in Athens in November 2010 to celebrate the opening of a new Onassis Cultural Center, a stunning facility dedicated to artistic performance and research in the arts, humanities, and sciences. A transdisciplinary panel composed of 10 scholars and practitioners representing the arts, architecture, humanities, journalism, sciences, and urban planning was selected to lead dialogues on quality of life, a topic of particular interest to readers of Environment. This note is a brief summary of the results of a preparatory meeting of Quality of Life Panel members at the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation offices in New York City and several of the manuscripts prepared for the Athens meeting.1

The first questions asked at the Quality of Life session at the Athens Dialogues were: Where are we in our understanding of quality of life? What challenging questions remain to be answered in future scholarly research? As a starting point, a Google search resulted in 349,000,000 sources of information, opinion, and insights into this topic. A more limited search for books on quality of life yielded 6,700,000 links. The top tier returns on the searches included an award-winning stage performance titled Quality of Life that is described as “an unforgettable, brave work of heart and humor,”2 and an independent film titled Quality of Life about two prolific and talented graffiti writers in the Mission District in San Francisco3. The searches also returned numerous references to the successful 1997 electoral campaign of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Mayor Giuliani is claimed to have done as much as any contemporary politician to move the theme of quality of life into the mainstream conversation of a major city.

As expected, a vast amount of scholarly work on quality of life has been produced by researchers in the humanities, social sciences, engineering, education, natural sciences, business, and biomedical sciences. One common theme across this broad reach of intellectual endeavor is the search for indicators of quality of life. Efforts to describe, rank, and quantify the well-being and happiness of modern, post-modern, and even ancient societies make up a very popular topic across a wide range of disciplines. Scholarly journals like Social Indicators Research offer state-of-the-art perspectives on quality-of-life indicator research and assessment. Some of the more publically accessible indicators are the Human Development Index,4 the Economist Intelligence Unit's quality of life index,5 Calvert–Henderson Quality of Life Indicators,6 and quality-of-life indices tracked and published by numerous individual cities.

Readers of Environment will find the integrative research on quality of life conducted at the University of Vermont especially interesting.7 These studies integrate objective measures of humans needs with subjective studies of well-being and happiness. These studies provide a comprehensive overview of measures to assess human needs and wants for built, human, social, and natural capital, and their uses to inform the design of policy options aimed at achieving progress on quality of life. Scholarly research on quality of life is abundant, and the outcomes find applications in a wide variety of public and private sector applications.

The Athens Dialogues Quality of Life Panel has examined a less-well-traveled research path on quality of life, inquiring into fundamental processes that influence or directly determine both temporal and spatial variations in measures and perceptions of quality of life. Themes explored included a history of human innovation, social inequalities, and measures of human well-being from ancient societies to the present, changes in the nature of the built environment over time, why art matters for understanding quality of life, the future of synthetic biology and quality of life, and the role of chance and sustainability in shaping the past and future evolution of the Universe. One overarching finding was that the biosphere and human cultures are ceaselessly creative in ways that seem to be fundamentally unpredictable over very long periods of time.

Unique characteristics of the panel and process included the transdisciplinary makeup of the panel members and respondents, and the overarching effort to identify diachronic connections to early Greek civilization, culture, and knowledge. Panel members provided expertise and perspectives from archaeology, architecture and urban planning, biology, economics, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, the arts, and fundamental physics. Several examples of topics covered are discussed next.

Several members of the Quality of Life Panel focused on the work of mathematician and architect Christopher Alexander.8 His many contributions include the concept of structure-preserving transformations, a process that creates differentiations and new structures while preserving at least part of the previous structure. Alexander's “structuralist” theory is rooted in a concept that fundamental human needs originate from the complex structures observed in nature. His work offers a global analysis by synthesizing observations and data on patterns in architecture, art, and landscapes across a wide range of cultures and civilizations. It was noted that in addition to the importance of geometries in nature that connect to the consciousness of humans, there are clearly feelings that have other sources and distinguish us from computing machines. This is an area that most scientists prefer to ignore. Artists often view all aspects of landscape as vibrant and alive, suggesting the organic whole cannot be decomposed into living and nonliving parts, for these parts are mutually entangled in the whole. These findings suggest that further research in the emerging areas of neuroaesthetics and the psychology of aesthetics will be rewarding.

An intriguing analysis on the archaeology of innovation was presented with an emphasis on the major dilemma that we face today: How do we use the human capacity to innovate to recover from the unsustainability of our current mode of life? This is a particularly daunting challenge as it has been innovations that led to the taming of fossil energy, conquest of the material world, and emergence of the Anthropocene.9 It is clear that human actions modify the environment in many more ways than can be anticipated by the human mind. The author of this paper concludes that humans “must crucially acquire the capacity to increase, rather than reduce, the number of dimensions that we can harness in order to understand complex phenomena.” The long era of reductionist, fragmented science must be replaced with new approaches that are adequate to address the complexities we face today.

The Quality of Life Panel also explored the transformational influences of recent advances in our knowledge of the origins of our universe. It is now estimated that the universe is made up of 73% dark energy, 23% dark matter, and only 4% matter with which we are most familiar (protons, neutrons, and electrons). Humanity will have to adjust to the notion that our world is a trivial component of the total universe, and we are not made of the primary matter that composes the universe. The rapidly advancing scientific understanding of cosmology and astrophysics will challenge scientists, philosophers, and religious scholars to re-examine the place and role of humans in the Universe.

It was noted in a symposium paper that the Allegory of the Cave, recounted by Plato in The Republic, remains as a timeless fundamental challenge to all scholars. We are, Socrates says, like people chained to the floor of a cave, watching only the flickering, ever-changing reflections on the wall before us, cast by puppeteers behind, and projected from the light of a great fire. Thus, our knowledge of the nature of the world and its objects is only a series of transitory reflections of the real, permanent truth.

Caption: Plato statue at the Academy of Athens building in Athens, Greece.

Aristotle was also prescient in his concern for the need of a path to a deeper reality that is more precisely ordered and fundamental to connecting the way parts of knowledge relate to a holistic understanding of the world we live in and the universe we travel through. The evolution of humanity has created increasingly complex socio-technical-ecological systems in modern societies. This process has resulted in a condition described as post-normal science, characterized by wicked problems and uncertainties that are unlikely to be resolved by more elaborate quantification.10 Thus, the struggle for universal principles defining knowledge on quality of life remains a challenge. Is it possible that quality of life may remain something desirable that is always just out of human reach?

-Robert Harriss, Houston Advanced Reserach Center, The Woodlands, Texas

1. The Athens Dialogues involved a year of preparation, with each presenter providing a paper for publication by the Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies on the Internet at (accessed on 1 September 2010). Four expert respondents were selected to lead the dialogues on quality of life with prepared questions for clarifications, challenges to propositions made by the speakers, and seeking an integrative understanding of how the diachronic sense of Greek contributions may have contributed to the topic. The session was then opened to discussion by the larger audience of invited scholars and members of the public for an extended dialogue on quality of life.

2. The Quality of Life by Emmy Award–winning playwright-director Jane Anderson was winner of three 2008 LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards, including Best Play, Best Playwright, and Best Lead Actress (Laurie Metcalf). It was also nominated for four 2007 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards.

3. Quality of Life is a narrative feature film and authentic story of Michael “Heir” Rosario and Curtis “Vain” Smith, the most prolific and talented graffiti writers in the Mission District in San Francisco. It was a winner of a prestigious Special Mention jury award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

4. Human Development Reports, (accessed 1 September 2010).

5. Economist Intelligence Unit's quality of life index, (accessed 1 September 2010).

6. Calvert–Henderson Quality of Life Indicators, (accessed 1 September 2010).

7. R. Costanza, B. Fisher, S. Ali, C. Beer, L. Bond, R. Boumans, N. Danigelis, J. Dickinson, C. Elliott, J. Farley, D. Gayer, L. Glenn, T. Hudspeth, D. Mahoney, L. McCahill, B. McIntosh, B. Reed, S. Abu Turab Rizvi, D. Rizzo, T. Simpatico, and R. Snapp, “Quality of Life: An Approach Integrating Opportunities, Human Needs, and Subjective Well-Being,” Ecological Economics 61, no. 2–3 (2007): 267–276.

8. C. Alexander, The Nature of Order, An Essay on the Art of Building and The Nature of the Universe, Vol. 1, The Phenomenon of Life (Berkeley, CA: Center for Environmental Structure, 2002).

9. P. Crutzen, and E. Stoermer, “The Anthropo-cene,” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18.

10. J. Ravetz, “Post-Normal Science and the Complexity of Transitions Towards Sustainability,” Ecological Complexity 3 (2006): 275–284.

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