Tragedy of the Commons
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Sat, 9 Jan 2021 12:04:49 -0800 (PST)
>> On Jan 8, 2021, at 4:07 PM, Janet Boys <jboys [at]> wrote:
>> It has been tested and proven that the way to encourage people to use les:
>> electricity/gas/water is to charge each household through its own meter. If
>> you do not,  you have the tragedy of the commons. With multiple households
>> on one meter, it is hard for any household to see if it is making a
>> difference by behaving differently. 

> On Jan 8, 2021, at 9:02 PM, Liz Ryan Cole via Cohousing-L <cohousing-l [at] 
>> wrote:
>  “The Tragedy of the Commons” theory was not actually grounded in an 
> empirically accurate representation of the commons. Elinor Ostrom was awarded 
> the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for demonstrating this concept in her book 
> Governing the Commons, which included examples of how local communities were 
> able to do this without top-down regulations.

However, Elinor Ostrom also formulated eight rules for a successful sharing 
economy disproving the economic theory that only private property can protect 
resources. She studied common resource management that had operated 
successfully for 400+ years.

A short version of her rules:

1. Defined user and resource boundaries — clarity

2. Congruence with local social and environmental conditions and proportional 
distribution of costs and benefits — within local needs and norms

3. Collective-Choice Arrangements — participants make the rules.

4. Monitoring of users and resources — accountability

5. Graduated Sanctions start low but become stronger with repeated violations — 

6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms — a mediation process

7. Recognition of rights by the larger community (the non-participants) — in 
harmony with the larger context

8. Nested enterprises— a place in the whole. Defined within a complex of 
interdependent systems.

An example: Ostrom was asked in an interview — Who cleans the refrigerator in 
your office? 

She replied: "We have agreed upon standards of cleanness and a list of all the 
users of the refrigerator posted on the wall along with the dates during which 
they are responsible for maintenance. Everyone knows who is responsible when 
and can be held to account by anyone."

Transparency is the regulator. No one person is responsible for monitoring or 
enforcing or reminding.

From discussion here, cohousing communities tend to err by not agreeing on 
standards, holding people accountable, and having automatically applied 
consequences. I think consequences are less important if transparency is 
practiced and everyone takes responsibility for keeping each other honest. Our 
bylaws, for example, stipulate that failure to pay dues means a late fee first, 
then working out a repayment plan, then a lien on the property if the situation 
not remedied. Liens have rarely been used and late fees are rare. 

Sharon Villines
Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington DC

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