I am trying to understand the relationship between governance and sustainability.

So far I find that the management of common pool resources (CPRs) provides a prime example of research on this topic. I am aware of some of Elinor Ostrom's work and her 'no panacea' thesis regarding governance of CPRs. However, one conclusion I draw from her work is that some degree of political power decentralization is essential for the sustainable governance of CPRs. In fact, Ostrom's design principles 2,3,4,7, and 8 all to some degree imply that decentralization is instrumental in CPR management. From my admittedly limited reading on this subject I found that no concrete models that take into account governance centralization have been proposed yet. I am hoping that I am just ignoring some part of the literature and that someone could point me to the right direction.

My main question is if there exists in the literature any comprehensive model that includes the effect of political power decentralization on sustainability.

Specific questions that I would be seeking the answer to in such studies would be:

  1. Is there an optimal range of power decentralization, ceteris paribus, if our criterion is sustainability? I realize that talking about the range of decentralization may be confusing, but at least the extremes should be relatively easy to grasp.

  2. How does sustainability relate to scale? For example, is there a community size above or below which decentralization is not feasible if sustainable living is our criterion?

  3. For the stretch goal, what are other important variables? It is clear that decentralization does not by itself solve all problems. Has there been any progress in formalizing enough of the relevant parameters into a generalized model that is able to predict anything?


  1. I have been reading answers to

    One problem I see with this type of discussion is that it is confounded by the categorization of policies along the left-right or progressive-conservative spectra. However, I have come to think that it would be more constructive to think about the subject in terms of the effect of governance centralization on sustainability.

  2. I take it as a given that sustainability, defined as the potential for a community to survive and prosper within a long-enough temporal frame of reference, should be the criterion by which to judge the success of a governance model for the purposes of this discussion. I am aware of a plethora of studies that evaluate how individual strategies succeed while varying some aspects of power centralization but this is not what I am looking for here.

  3. I am expecting that there will be no empirical studies given the complexity of the matter. But I do hope that at least some theoretical work exists on this.

  • You are only interested in modern industrialized states right? Because otherwise you might get a comparison of say South American farmers to Amazon tribes and be able conjure any answer from which ones you compare, since a range of decentralization seems to exist on either side. – user9389 Sep 11 '17 at 15:00
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    Note: Any such research that ignores USSR (extreme centralization, worse sustainability/environmental record than most Western contemporary societies) is worthless by virtue of being contradicted by reality. – user4012 Sep 11 '17 at 16:16
  • @notstoreboughtdirt No, not in principle, non-western states/communities would do as well. I guess there would be a limit when it comes to scale which obviously will not compare to present-day western communities, but I'll gladly get what anyone has to offer. – vkehayas Sep 11 '17 at 20:20
  • @user4012 I'd be very grateful if you have resources to share on the sustainability record of USSR. Having said that, I don't expect that a fully deterministic model will be produced anytime soon. Hence, a merely statistical description, provided that enough states/communities have been studied and that we can detect such a statistical relationship in the first place, is commensurate with my expectations. That is, I do not seek to simply study or formalize a model based on single instances but I am rather interested in the general principles involved, if any. – vkehayas Sep 11 '17 at 20:35
  • @vkehayas - as a random but high profile example, Google Aral Sea. – user4012 Sep 11 '17 at 21:07

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