In This Article Common Pool Resources

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Books and Edited Volumes
  • Journal Special Issues
  • Established CPR Literature
  • Methods
  • Miscellaneous Resources

Environmental Science Common Pool Resources
Tanya Heikkila, David P. Carter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0011


Common pool resources (CPRs) are characterized as resources for which the exclusion of users is difficult (referred to as excludability), and the use of such a resource by one user decreases resource benefits for other users (referred to as subtractability). Common CPR examples include fisheries, forests, irrigation systems, and pastures. Global CPR examples include the earth’s oceans and atmosphere. Difficulty in excluding users, combined with a CPR’s subtractability, create management vulnerabilities that can result in resource degradation, often referred to as the “tragedy of the commons” (see the General Overviews section). The difficulty of exclusion means that if some individuals invest in protecting a CPR, others might still benefit without contributing to its management. Individuals may not have an incentive to curtail their use of a CPR because the cost of their use of a CPR is shared by all users. If resource users do not restrain their use of a CPR or contribute to CPR management, the result is often the depletion or degradation of the CPR’s quality. The importance of such “tragedies” is evident in anecdotal examples, from the devastation of tropical rain forests to the depletion of local and regional fish stocks. At the same time, CPR scholars have found many examples that suggest that people are capable of averting these tragedies and sustaining CPRs. Scholars have devoted considerable attention to understanding the nature of CPR dilemmas, the conditions under which people are able to work together to address them, and what makes the rules or institutions that people devise in managing CPRs successful. Examples of institutional responses include resource privatization or private property rights, government management, and community management through collective action, among others (see the CPR Dilemma Solutions section). The variety of disciplines that contribute to the CPR literature include, but are not limited to, anthropology, agriculture, biology, ecology, engineering, law, political science, public administration, rural sociology, and sociology. A research program that has become well known for its multidisciplinary and expansive research on CPRs centers on the scholarship of Dr. Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her research on how local communities around the world have devised institutions to sustainably manage CPRs. The bulk of initial CPR research from the Ostrom school and others focused on a limited set of smaller, often community managed, CPRs, such as a pasture, groundwater basin, or local fishery (see the Established CPR Literature section). In the decades of vigorous research that has ensued, scholars have explored the wide variation that exists among CPR settings and contexts, including methodological and empirical challenges and opportunities for testing and advancing theory in these diverse settings. The methods employed in CPR studies (see the Methods section) include case studies, game theory, field experiments, and large-n statistical analyses. Additionally, researchers have grappled with issues of large and interconnected CPRs, such as marine commons and interstate river basins (see the Scale and Complexity section), and they have begun to test the applicability of established CPR theory to new contexts, such as the information commons (see the Nontraditional CPR Applications section). Although the works cited in this article are not an exhaustive list of all CPR publications, they illustrate the variety and promise of the CPR literature, from established and classic works to recent and emerging CPR applications.

General Overviews

A diverse literature has provided overviews of CPRs and the management, governance, and collective action challenges associated with them. A foundational piece in this literature is Garrett Hardin’s essay on the “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968). It introduces readers to the logic behind the overuse and degradation (or “tragedy”) of the commons, while also postulating how to avert such tragedies—primarily through either government regulation or privatization of the commons. The National Research Council (NRC) report is one of the first to bring together a diverse array of empirical evidence from numerous scholars challenging some of the initial assumptions of the tragedy of the commons laid out by Hardin. It was also the first to begin to develop a more comprehensive picture of the alternative institutional and governance approaches to addressing commons problems internationally, such as self-governance arrangements. Feeny, et al. 1990 builds on many of the ideas and lessons in the NRC reports in highlighting the need to expand theories and models of the commons to recognize how self-governed common property regimes can be sustainable. Gardner, et al. 1990 lays out insights on the diverse characteristics of commons dilemmas and considers how game-theoretic concepts can be applied to better understand these dilemmas and their outcomes. This is the same year that a seminal book titled Governing the Commons (Ostrom 1990, cited under Books and Edited Volumes) was published. More recent work cited here, including Schlager 2004 and Ostrom 2008, present useful summaries of theories of CPR management and institutional design originally postulated in Governing the Commons. Dietz, et al. 2003 brings together many of the lessons from the 1990s on local and smaller-scale commons and summarizes how those lessons can be understood in the context of global or larger-scale CPRs. Recent books (see de Moor 2015 and Wall 2014 summarized in Books and Edited Volumes) have added historical perspectives to the literature, which complement analyses of more contemporary CPR settings.

  • Dietz, Thomas, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern. 2003. The struggle to govern the commons. Science 302.5652: 1907–1912.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1091015E-mail Citation »

    A highly cited overview of CPR dilemmas and the institutional strategies and principles needed for responding to commons challenges, with an emphasis on larger-scale and transboundary commons.

  • Feeny, David, Fikret Berkes, Bonnie J. McCay, and James M. Acheson. 1990. The tragedy of the commons: Twenty-two years later. Human Ecology 18.1: 1–19.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00889070E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Hardin’s model of the commons is oversimplified and uses evidence from around the globe to identify a range of possible alternative solutions to commons problems, including government regulation, property rights, and community governance.

  • Gardner, Roy, Elinor Ostrom, and James M. Walker. 1990. The nature of common-pool resource problems. Rationality and Society 2.3: 335–358.

    DOI: 10.1177/1043463190002003005E-mail Citation »

    Draws from game theory in developing a conceptual framework for studying CPR dilemmas. Specifies the necessary conditions that result in a CPR dilemma, demonstrates how game-theoretic concepts apply to CPR dilemmas, and presents evidence from lab experiments and field research to show how the framework can be applied.

  • Hardin, Garrett. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162.3859: 1243–1248.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243E-mail Citation »

    Classic discussion of the nature of problems associated with overuse of the commons and one of the first published works to point to government management and property rights as two alternative solutions to CPR dilemmas. Recent CPR literature, however, has critiqued Hardin’s assumptions as overly simplified.

  • National Research Council. 1986. Proceedings of the Conference on Common Property Resource Management, April 21–26, 1985. Washington, DC: National Academies.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first published collection of essays and findings from a panel of experts on the commons. It defines commons dilemmas, explores alternative institutional arrangements for sustaining the commons, presents evidence on case studies in diverse resource settings from around the globe, and offers propositions for successful commons institutions.

  • Ostrom, Elinor. 2008. The challenge of common-pool resources. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 50.4: 8–21.

    DOI: 10.3200/ENVT.50.4.8-21E-mail Citation »

    Provides an accessible introduction to CPR characteristics and related dilemmas, and discusses cases related to fisheries and forests in order to illustrate CPR dilemmas and management solutions.

  • Schlager, Edella. 2004. Common-pool resource theory. In Environmental governance reconsidered. Edited by Robert F. Durant, Daniel J. Fiorino, and Rosemary O’Leary, 145–176. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    E-mail Citation »

    Offers an overview of CPR characteristics and dilemmas, and summarizes the two primary themes underlying CPR theory: (1) the conditions associated with the emergence of collective action or cooperative behavior around CPRs, and (2) the institutional design principles associated with long-term cooperation in CPR settings.

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