Dr. Scott Atran
Institute for Social Research
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor MI 48106-1248, USA
e-mail: satran@umich.edu
(Mailing address for fall 1996)

SCOTT ATRAN is Charge de Recherche, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CREA-Ecole Polytechnique, Paris, France, and Research Scientist at the Institute for Social Research, as well as Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He holds a Ph.D. in anthropology (1984) from Columbia University (doctoral thesis: "The Phenomenal Foundations of Biological Classification"). He was assistant to Dr. Margaret Mead, Curator of Ethnology, American Museum of Natural History (1970-74), coordinator of the Animal and Human Communication Program (Royaumont Center for a Science of Man, Paris, France), and organizer of the Chomsky-Piaget Conference on Language and Learning (1974-76). Since 1981, he has held numerous research and teaching positions in France, Israel, and the United States. His research focus is on the cognitive foundations of biological classification, learning, and reasoning. He has published broadly on these topics, including the book "Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Toward an Anthropology of Science" (1990). He is currently involved in joint research with Dr. Douglas Medin on ethnoecological knowledge and reasoning, as well as conceptualization and management of common-pool natural resources, among Mayan and Mestizo populations of Guatemala and Mexico.



"The Commons Breakdown"

Humankind's health depends upon maintaining aspects of the environment that sustain human survival and people's desire for progress. Maintaining the environment, in turn, depends upon knowledge that is effective in producing actions that adequately anticipate future consequences. Given the geometrically increasing rates of word-wide pollution, rapid resource depletion and massive species extinction there is little evidence that our industrial societies currently possess the effective knowledge necessary for managing humankind's changing relationships to its common resources, such as the earth's forests, ranges, air and waters. Indeed, there are compelling arguments that "rational" calculation of gains and losses for individual decision-makers in such societies leads inexorably to overuse and ruin of resources. Nevertheless, successful management of local ecosystems does not appear to be infrequent in small-scale societies and among traditional peoples.

There are, however, few economic, political or legal institutions in the fast expanding industrialized world that countenance any form of environmental management that is neither private nor government-controlled. There is even less consideration of the likelihood that common-pool resources may not be as fully negotiable, transferable or interchangeable as money items. Current research and planning by development and conservation agencies rarely addresses such issues. Despite frequent calls for "local participation" and "grassroots involvement," it is overwhelmingly the case that the agenda for such participation and involvement is preset from the outside. As a result, even long-standing commons regimes that may date back to the beginnings of civilizations are not likely to survive into the next millenium.

Our research considers the possibility that commons problems may result principally from local commons breakdowns, not from an original lack of commons solutions. It focuses on how those aspects of folkbiological knowledge and reasoning that pertain to commons management systematically form in people's minds, how they are communicated and distributed through society, and how they are implemented in action. Understanding how cultures successfully manage their common-pool resources, and where this management breaks down, not only offers potential templates or bases for the elaboration of localized solutions to particular problems that may affect millions of people in both industrialized and developing nations, but also the chance that we may not have to start from scratch in attempting to cope with more expansive and global challenges to our children's health and to the prospects for the cultural survival and progress of others.

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