The triumph of the commons – RIP Elinor Ostrom

Apart from being the first (and only) woman to win the Nobel Prize for economics, Elinor Ostrom will be remembered as a towering intellect for another reason too: fundamentally changing the way people think about commons and the environment.

Back in the 1970s, when environmental issues first rose to the top of the global agenda, the word ‘commons’ was usually prefixed by three other words: “tragedy of the”. This was thanks to another economist, Garrett Hardin, who famously argued that (here in a 1968 edition of Science magazine):

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons … As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” … the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons.

“Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

As a story about how humans behave and interact with their environment, this was powerful stuff, brutal in its determinism. We were all stuck in a death spiral in which the pursuit of our individual self-interest would remorselessly undermine our collective self-interests – and there was nothing any of us could do about it.

Elinor Ostrom’s research turned all this on its head. Rubbish, she said in work throughout her career. There are plenty of examples of people cooperating effectively to manage ‘common pool resources’, as she called them, effectively. In her seminal book Governing the Commons, she set out examples from all over the world: irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines, fisheries in Nova Scotia and Sri Lanka.

Across all of these examples, she identified common threads: key principles that made it possible for shared resources to be managed successfully and sustainabily. Institutional design was everything. Decision-making had to be inclusive. Effective monitoring was essential. So too were sanctions for offenders – but graduated sanctions, that created incentives for wrongdoers to amend their ways and return to the fold. Solid mechanisms for conflict resolution. And so on.

Ostrom’s work was invaluable in research terms. But it was perhaps even more important in presenting an alternative, far more hopeful, narrative to Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons, at a time when more upbeat stories about humans and their relationship with their environment are sorely needed. It’s in no small part thanks to her that there’s today such a flourishing community of interest in commons as a way of managing shared resources.

As it happens, her last article, looking ahead to Rio+20, was published on Project Syndicate yesterday – here it is.