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Bringing the Environment Back In: Overcoming the Tragedy of the Diffusion of the Commons Metaphor (2022)

(Publisher : Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association)

Author(s) : Benjamin Cashore and Steven Bernstein

Benjamin Cashore, National University of Singapore
Steven Bernstein, University of Toronto


Contrary to calls for increased relevance, the discipline of political science has had lasting impacts in shaping environmental policy analysis. The ideas and approach advocated by former APSA president Elinor Ostrom, most comprehensively articulated in Governing the Commons, have diffused to shape or reinforce generations of sustainability scholarship. We identify four “ideal type” problem conceptions that are distinguished based on their consistency or inconsistency with Ostrom’s inductive approach to problem structure and economic welfare emphasis, and four corresponding schools that reinforce each: commons (Type 1), economic optimization (Type 2), compromise (Type 3), and prioritization (Type 4). Whereas the prioritization school seeks to understand and identify lessons for minimizing the impact of human activity on the natural environment, the diffusion of the commons’ metaphor has led political scientists to champion frameworks that bias Type 3, 2, and 1 orientations. The latter all rest on moral underpinnings that promote human material interests as their goal, rather than recognizing them as also a primary cause of environmental degradation. A fundamental conceptual reorientation is required if social scientists in general, and political scientists in particular, are to generate an understanding of and identify tools for ameliorating rather than exacerbating today’s Type 4 climate change and species extinction crises.

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