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Natural Resource Management Cluster

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Natural Resource Management Cluster


Context within NORA

Relationships to Needs

The organizational forms in this cluster relate most directly to the needs for air, water, and food that directly utilize natural resources. Slightly more indirectly, they relate to all the needs that require material resources of some kind, such as the needs for being at home, mobility, security, clothing, and shelter.


Relationships to other Organizational Forms

All of our material resources are derived from nature, and therefore must involve some form of natural resource management to be made available to us. The same organizational forms that manage natural resources then turn to other humans and make those resources, or products derived from them, available to others. This can in principle happen through organizational forms belonging to any of the other clusters listed in NORA, except the free knowledge cluster (free knowledge is relevant to learning how best to manage natural resources, but the resources can not be shared in the same way as knowledge can!).

For example, forest products can be utilized through self-provisioning (as in collecting mushrooms in the forest), community solidarity (as when a forest area belongs to a village community, which decides how to use its products), individual sales (as when timber is sold in the market), committed services or sales (such as a long-term contract for the supply of fuelwood to a local power plant using wood chips), denial of choice (as when a border zone is kept off-limits to most people), and sharing/renting (as when a forest area is leased to a timber company). Currencies and markets as well as networks (e.g., among village communities or among timber companies) are used in very many of these transactions.


Relationships to Resources

Natural resource management pertains directly to all natural resources – air and atmosphere, water, land, energy, minerals, and living things.

Natural resource management supplies the materials needed to create all physical, human made assets.

Intangibles, specifically information, knowledge, and trust are needed in order to manage natural resources sustainably. A sense of connection to – or love of – the land, the sea, and the animals and plants that inhabit them is also usually required so that people have the motivation to manage natural resources in a truly sustainable way – in a way that sees them not merely as resources, but as entities that have their own reasons for existence, independent of humans.


Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity

Natural resources exist in finite quantities, but if these quantities are far greater than what we need, the resources are abundant. Only if our demands exceed the amount locally available at a given time is there scarcity. For example, there is plenty of water on the planet, but it is not enough for some people in some places.

The management of natural resources takes on different forms depending on whether these resources are perpetually renewable (like wind and solar energy), biologically renewable (animals, plants, micro-organisms, soils), or non-renewable. In the case of renewable resources, management consists of the science and art of working with the forces of nature and of life to enable continued regeneration of the resource. To be successful over the long term, people need to recognize the creative forces of nature and work in partnership with them, rather than imagining that humans alone are the source of all value. This is unfortunately too often forgotten, leading to many of our troubles in the area of sustainable use of natural resources.

In the case of non-renewable resources (mineral resources, fossil fuels) it is vital that we learn to recycle them to the maximum extent possible, just like ecosystems re-use the nutrients that make up living things. Only if this is done can we minimize the harm to ecosystems that results from mining the earth's mineral wealth, and ensure that the rarer minerals remain available to future generations of people.


Natural resource management under private property regimes

In the capitalist economic system, only scarce resources are considered valuable, because only these can fetch a high price in the market. Thus, for example, air to breathe has no economic value (it cannot be sold, because everybody has direct access to it). This means that as long as a natural resource is abundant, it is considered “efficient” to waste it in order to make “efficient” use of other more costly (scarce) resources. For example, Ghana invested in expensive machinery in order to increase its timber exports – and then, in order to pay the loans incurred in buying the machinery, had to feed its machines with logs non-stop, no matter what happened to the forests (see Owusu 1998**). Only once forests become scarce in a place are their “ecosystem services” recognized as valuable – and then it becomes possible to monetize those services (and it becomes attractive for the highest bidder to take control of forests in order to sell those services).

A resource can only have a price – and thereby be regarded as scarce and valuable – if somebody owns it. As long as nobody is recognized as an owner, the resource remains “free” even if it is becoming rare. Thus, for example, as an animal species that yields desirable trophies becomes rare, it still remains free for the hunter to kill. Only once the hunter turns around and sells the trophy does it acquire a scarcity value, offering huge profits to the hunter. Hence, increased market value can lead to an animal being hunted to extinction, with the hunting effort becoming greater the rarer the animal has become. This is the opposite of the case when the animal “merely” has use value, because in that case it wouldn't be worth that much effort to track down the last ones.

Socially, scarcity can be created even if a natural resource is used in a way that does not deplete the resource. This occurs when a few people have ownership or control over the resource, even while large numbers of people depend on it for their livelihoods or their survival. Examples include agricultural land owned by a few large landholders while the rest of the rural population either has no land at all or only very small plots of land, and mines owned by a large company, worked by workers who have few other economic opportunities and are therefore highly exploitable, and having large environmental impacts on the surrounding community. The pollution of air, water and land by industry also impairs the use of these natural resources for all the people in the affected area.


Natural resource management by the state

It has long been recognized that these kinds of resource use can have hugely adverse effects both on the resource and on other people. The most common solution to this issue has been state intervention. For example, the government can buy or otherwise appropriate land for purposes of nature conservation, it can push through land reforms that redistribute the land, it can pass laws to protect endangered animal or plant species, it can regulate agricultural and industrial practices in order to reduce pollution or soil erosion. It can also provide positive incentives that make resource conservation more attractive, or tax certain kinds of resource use while providing subsidies for other, more desirable ones. It can create markets, for example by placing a cap on total emissions in an area, and allowing companies trade in the remaining rights to pollute. In all these cases, the government is seeking to act as a steward for the goods that we all hold in common, often referred to as “public goods.”

The problem with all these types of government intervention is that it remains within the self-interest of individual companies to use resources unsustainably, because that lowers their costs of production. If the state intervenes by using punishments, many businesses will violate those laws, and substantial efforts have to be made to enforce the laws. If the state intervenes using incentives, businesses may do more to appear to do what is desired, rather than to actually do what is desired (that way they get the rewards without having to pay the costs of better performance). Where markets in environmental services or pollution rights are created, it also “pays” to appear to be doing more than one actually is. Hence, in all these cases, it is of key importance that the government carefully monitor actual environmental performance, and impose substantial fines in the case of infractions or fraud. Such vigilance is rarely rewarding for government (and can make a government very unpopular), which means that government is often a poor steward of environmental resources.

The state can itself become the owner of natural resources, both in capitalist and communist systems. For example, extensive forests are owned by the state in countries all over the world. In the specific example of the United States, the state is the owner of the majority of the land in the western half of the country, administering forests through the Forest Service, ranchlands and many areas with mineral deposits through the Bureau of Land Management, areas for the testing of bombs and for other military purposes through the Department of Defense, and national parks through the Department of the Interior. Many countries have declared their oil, natural gas or other mineral resources as the property of the state, and then allow mining companies to bid for concessions to exploit that natural resource wealth. In theory, the government is supposed to represent the interests of the entire nation, and therefore balance the opposing interests regarding resource use. However, government may just as well serve the narrow interests of a corporate elite, of a dominant ethnic group, or of outside financial interests, and then the state property is treated almost as if it was the property of those influential groups. State control of natural resources can thus only serve the interests of the majority of the people if there is true democratic accountability.


Commons approaches to natural resource management

The state, if held to high democratic standards, can manage natural resources as commons on behalf of the nation. Individuals or private organizations, if motivated by an ethic of care for others and for future generations, can also manage natural resources with the larger whole in mind. As the above sections review, however, these efforts are fraught with very high incentives for abuse. On the other hand, natural resources can also be managed directly by communities of users, who may be referred to as commoners. In many cases, natural resources have been managed sustainably as commons for centuries. Such sustainable management depends on the community of users having a long-term stake in the common resource, real control over the resource, and effective channels of communication so that rules of use can be adapted to changing conditions. In addition, if all members of the community are to enjoy the benefits of the resource, then it is essential that decision-making processes be participatory and democratic.

Commons approaches are adaptable to a wide range of conditions, and address the following properties of natural resources:

  • Natural resources are not produced by humans. This means that there is no justification for some people having more access to them than others (that is like arguing that only some people should have the chance to breathe air without paying for it). In the case of natural resources that can be degraded by human activities, the answer is to establish various forms of shared ownership.
  • We often use natural resources through the shared labor of many people. It is not one man alone who “mixes his labor with the land,” but a whole group of people. To ensure that they all benefit in proportion to the work they put in, they should all share in the responsibilities as well as the benefits of ownership.
  • It is difficult, impractical, inequitable, or impossible to subdivide many natural resources into separate units to be managed by individuals. This is very obvious with the air and atmospher, but it is also the case to varying extents with groundwater resources, surface waters, the ocean, oceanic fisheries, coastal and freshwater fisheries, wildlife, grazing lands in arid environments, and forests. In such cases, creating larger units shared by a community of commoners is a more effective approach than the attempt to subdivide the resource into individually owned parcels.
  • Natural resources often need to be managed at a variety of scales. For example, water resources may need to be managed at the level of a small valley, the drainage basin of a tributary of a larger river, the drainage basin of a major river (such as the Nile, the Ganga/Brahmaputra system, the Amazon, the Mississippi, or the Danube), an estuary, a sea (such as the Black Sea or the Gulf of Mexico), an ocean, or the entire planet. A variety of commons-based institutions can be developed at these varying scales as needed; they can also cut across borders of countries or smaller adminstrative units.

There is often a great temptation to use up natural resources quickly to benefit present users instead of maintaining them in good condition for future generations. A commons allows those commoners who think in the long term to prevail over the more short-term thinkers through the crafting and enforcement of appropriate rules. Markets on the other hand provide immediate advantages to those who ignore long-term costs, and thus tend to favor the most unscrupulous users of the common resource.

Commons approaches to natural resource use can of course face numerous pitfalls as well, as all human institutions do. For example, a small sub-group within the larger community may obtain disproportionate power, subverting the commons. A particular community may not take care to avoid causing harm to people outside that community. A commons may feel pressured to use its resources unsustainably due to competition with outside groups or businesses. It is important, therefore, that commons-based institutions continuously re-appraise their performance so as to optimize it over time.


Approaches to creating greater abundance

(very incomplete list)


State-led approaches

  • regulations governing natural resource use (pollution, hunting, mining, agriculture, forestry, etc.)
  • state ownership of natural resources (land, mineral resources, natural habitats, forests, grazing lands, etc.)
  • incentives to promote sustainable resource use
  • cap-and-trade approaches
  • cap-and-dividend approaches
  • taxation of natural resource uses


Approaches involving many different actors (often at multiple scales)

  • approaches to protecting water quality of watersheds and river basins
  • joint forest management
  • community-based natural resource management initiatives with involvement of the state


Commons-based approaches

  • village commons (agricultural, grazing, or forest lands)
  • grazing lands (especially in arid or semi-arid environments)
  • freshwater fisheries
  • coastal fisheries
  • irrigation commons
  • commons trusts



International Association for the Study of the Commons

On the Commons

The Vince and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis

Wolfgang Hoeschele: Common Property Rights and Abundance (diagram)




(very incomplete list, but can serve as a good beginning)

Agrawal, Arun. 2005. Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Bollier, David, and Silke Helfrich (eds.). 2012. The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State. Amherst, Massachusetts: Levellers Press.

Bromley, Daniel, and David Feeny (eds.). 1992. Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice and Policy. San Francisco: ICS Press.

Brosius, J. Peter, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, and Charles Zerner (eds). 2005. Communities and Conservation: Histories and politics of community-based natural resource management. Walnut Creek, California: Alta Mira Press.

Cole, Daniel, and Elinor Ostrom(eds.). 2012. Property in Land and Other Resources. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Dolsak, Nives, and Elinor Ostrom (eds.). 2003. The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Ostrom, Elinor (ed.). 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Poffenberger, Mark, and Betsy McGean (eds.). 1996. Village Voices, Forest Choices: Joint Forest Management in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Poteete, Amy, Marco Janssen, and Elinor Ostrom. 2010. Working Together: Collective action, the commons, and multiple methods in practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



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