Environment and Society in a Changing World

Private Property and Common Pool Resources


This content from previous semesters is currently partially used in the current course. -Seth Baum, 3 June 2011

Private Property

For those of us that are living in the United States we often think of private property as a standard or common way of thinking about the use of resources. This is really important in societies such as the United States where private property has a major role to play in sustainable development.

Private property represents goods that can be bought and sold usually by individuals. The idea of private property assumes the existence and functioning of a market. In addition, the idea and philosophy of private property is very entrenched and rooted in the history, politics and legal systems of Europe and the United States. Private property emerges out of the 18th century and goes through many changes all the way up through current neo-liberalistic ideas of private property that we will learn about later in this module. Private property always assumes the role of government, even if it is just a minimal role in which it serves to regulate markets and the exchange of property.

In the area of sustainability we think of private property as a type of governance system, or one main way of governing the use of resources. For instance, private property is a foundation for environmental governance in most societies world-wide. Basically, people who own property are relatively free to use it as they see fit, subject to laws and their own cultural beliefs and social values.

When we are thinking about sustainability in particular, examples of private property include the ownership of parcels of land. In many different elements of sustainability it is land that is involved, for example forest ownership and determining the types of land cover that exists. Ownership of land also often involves the ownership of water and minerals or other deposits that are associated with that land. Private property also includes factories and manufacturing facilities, companies of all sorts whose decisions are very important to sustainability.

We can begin to think about private property as a foundation of environmental governance, and its roots in Europe and the United States, but there is another governance system which is somewhat similar but different than private property. These are called common property resources which are collectively owned or shared.

Common Pool Resources

As you will see, the management of many resources does not conform to the private model of property. In fact, many resources are pooled resources in that a group or different groups of people take responsibility for managing a resource.

Common pool resources are resources that are collectively owned or shared by many people. This could be forests, grazing lands, lakes, rivers, irrigation systems, oceans, and the atmosphere. If these resources are not owned by anybody in particular, they are referred to as ‘open access’ resources.

Consider important environmental resources such as air and water. Air and water are resources that are typically not bounded by individual properties and are commonly managed by groups of people. Looking at this globally, there are many resources that are found outside of one country which are managed internationally as common pool resources where groups of people collectively manage these resources.

Why can’t everyone use these resources in ways that work best for themselves?

Knowing what the important resources are and the issues that come along with trying to manage these in ways that benefit all users in ways that do not deplete the resource is a challenge that faces everyone involved.

Is it possible to overcome overexploitation of resources due to self-interest?

The fundamental ingredient is social cooperation, based on reciprocal altruism.


Below are listed a number of different resources which are managed and subjected to environmental governance as private property or as common pool resources. Decide whether the resource listed is subject to either private or common pool regulatory laws or policies then click on the icon on the left to reveal to check your understanding.

The earth's atmosphere

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The earth's atmosphere is a Common Pool resource

The oceans

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The oceans are a Common Pool resource

Trees on an estate in the Northeastern US

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Trees on an estate in the Northeastern US are a private property resource

The wildlife in the unfenced community lands of the Masai people in Kenya

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The wildlife in the unfenced community lands of the Masai people in Kenya are a common pool resource

The recycling decisions of the Xerox corporation

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The recycling decisions of the Xerox corporation could be either thought of as a common pool resource or as a private property resource. It depends on where and how these decisions are implemented