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Top 10 checklist: How societies can avoid 'ecocide'

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Some of these seem obvious. No. 4, for example – resource mobility. It's easier to manage wood from a stationary forest than, say, bluefin tuna, which swim many thousands of miles in a lifetime. Here's what's at stake: According to the WWF, if fishing as usual continues, bluefin stocks in the Mediterranean will collapse by 2012.

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Then there's No. 6: how many people use the resource. Again, (failed) fishery management illustrates how important this variable is. Open-access fisheries, where anyone can join the fishing fray, collapse time and time again. It's one reason that New England is so overfished. For decades, the fishery was essentially open to all.

The failure of open access partly explains the trend toward managing fish with so-called "hard TACs" – an absolute cap on the yearly Total Allowable Catch – and catch shares, in which people "own" a percentage of the year's scientifically determined TAC. Sustainable management means limiting and controlling access.

The importance of other variables is somewhat less apparent ... at first. No. 8: a shared set of norms, for example. People have to speak the same language – and that's meant in the broadest sense – before they can agree on anything.

But the real magic is in the synergy of these variables, how they work together. Ostrom uses Maine lobstermen as a case study in success.

Lobsters were overharvested in the 1920s; the stock was nearly destroyed. But today, Maine's waters teem with lobsters, and lobstermen can make a good living. How did that happen? Here's one secret, she says: harmony among local communities and state government. Top-down management didn't squelch bottom-up organizing. Lobstermen worked out lobstering rights themselves – plots of ocean along Maine's coast. "They were allowed to organize at a local level," she says.

But the state didn't butt out entirely. That was also key. Maine launched projects to grow lobsters in artificial ponds. And it introduced an innovation: notching lobster tails. Originally introduced as a way to track hatchery lobsters, tail-notching has become an important management tool in the greater scheme of things. Lobstermen notch the lobsters they release – if they're bearing eggs, say. Characteristics specific to the species in question – the fact that you can notch lobsters without killing them, not necessarily the case with fin fish — helped, in this case.

Also important: Maine lobstermen have a shared culture – shared social norms. That helped in hammering out the regulations at a local level. And finally, Maine has leaders (No. 7), professors like James Acheson and Jim Wilson as well as fishers like Ted Ames – all of them respected by the community and having an understanding of the larger problems and issues.

How might this apply to human-caused global warming, say, a potential tragedy of the global commons? Get global agreements in place, she says, but make sure to allow for innovations at the local level, and make sure to learn from them.

"We need both good science and very careful research designs," says Ostrom. "We need to treat citizens and resource users with respect and get them involved with problem-solving, and [we need] various ways of learning from more successful cases."

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