Is a larger population a blessing or a curse? For most of history, conventional wisdom has been “a curse.” Still, the last few centuries have shown that in a commercial society, the additional output we get from more hands and brains exceeds the reductions we get from having more mouths to feed and backs to clothe. Nonetheless, larger populations strain common-pool resources that no one owns and that everyone can use. Something must be done.

Must it, though? G.K. Chesterton once said that when you come across a fence in the wilderness, ensure you know why it is there and what problems it solves before you tear it down. Evolved indigenous institutions are like these fences, and as Meina Cai, my coauthor Ilia Murtazashvili, Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, and Raufhon Salahodjaev show in their book Toward a Political Economy of the Commons: Simple Rules for Sustainability, power-centralizing government conceit that ignored numerous and evolved centers of governance and management made a right mess of things.

How? By dismantling fences they did not understand and replacing them with rules they did, but that were inappropriate to conditions on the ground. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, US and Canadian officials replaced evolved, indigenous governance mechanisms like potlatching (ceremonial gift-giving feasts where people resolved disputes, managed relations among tribes, and governed common pool resources like the salmon fishery) “with a hodge-podge of regulations that proved ineffective in reducing overfishing.”

The authors explore forest management in one chapter and note that American forest management aimed to encourage agriculture under the Homestead Act of 1862, which led to widespread clearance. Brazil’s assignment of rights, according to the doctrine of beneficial use, encouraged agriculture at the cost of a denuded landscape. The problems emerged as people tried to replace decentralized, evolved systems that worked tolerably well with centrally planned and designed systems that solved some problems but created many others.

The systems that work, they argue, are polycentric, in that there is a dispersed network of sources of power and enforcement rather than one. The authors explain that polycentric governance, secure property rights, and free markets reinforced by a culture valuing trust, patience, and individualism lead to successful management of common-pool resources like forests, fisheries, minerals, and climate, and they recommend moving in these directions as we confront environmental challenges in the 21st century. They provide the institutional backdrop against which a social consensus about what is and is not a “resource” can develop.

I am skeptical of “climate justice;” It seems like another example of cloaking interests in the language of a moral imperative, as in reproductive justice. We can get “climate justice,” however, not by letting activists decide who lives and who dies, but by beginning where we are and carefully examining patterns of laws and norms to see where they mitigate or exacerbate environmental problems.

The human tendency toward action bias implies that we are wont to tear down strange fences in the wilderness. Cai et al. explain why we should work hard to understand them before we change anything, and they counsel a bit of humility that is hard to come by among people who read academic books. If they read this one, however, there may be hope yet.