Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom Made History
Elinor Ostrom, who passed away on June 12 from pancreatic cancer, made history by becoming the first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Her research provided acute insights into how the world really worked. I was fortunate to interview her two years ago at Indiana University (where she taught for decades), just months after she was awarded the Nobel.
“I’ve been interested in democratic governance at the very base,” she told me. She focused on “the capabilities of people at the smaller scale: from schools and parks to fisheries and irrigation systems,” she said.
Ostrom made her name critiquing a concept in the social sciences called the “tragedy of the commons.” This concept assumes that common property will inevitably be overused and degraded in the absence of private ownership. Not necessarily so, Ostrom said. Through her study of communally owned property in places ranging from Southern California and coastal Maine to Nepal and Kenya, she demonstrated that democratically managed commons could be sustainably used and preserved.
At the same time, Ostrom was conscious of libertarians co-opting her work by arguing that it showed the lack of need for any large-scale governance.
“The important thing about large-scale is the court system,” she said. “For example, you would not have civil rights for people of black origin in the United States but for a federal court system and also the courage of Martin Luther King and others.”
Ostrom achieved the ultimate recognition in her field in spite of a number of handicaps. She was raised by a single mother during the Depression, and entered a male-dominated realm where women weren’t welcome. (“I wanted to take trigonometry, and they wouldn't let me because I was a woman,” she told NPR.) Ironically, she received accolades as an economist even though her academic background was in political science.
What lessons can we take away from Ostrom’s work? Plenty, says Ruth Meinzen-Dick, especially ahead of the upcoming Rio plus 20 summit.
“In a world where attention too often focuses solely on the state or private sector as the driving force, Ostrom helped us understand institutional diversity, and ways of governing the commons that build on people's capacity for collective action,” Meinzen-Dick, who is senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, writes in The Guardian. “Her research offers valuable lessons on how to craft rules and provide incentives for co-operation at the many levels needed for a sustainable future.”
In a piece published remarkably the very day she died, Ostrom put forth similar ideas.
“Decades of research demonstrate that a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national, and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements,” she wrote. “Such an evolutionary approach to policy provides essential safety nets should one or more policies fail.”
And she warned of the immense costs of failure.
“Without action, we risk catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes to our life-support system,” she stated. “Our primary goal must be to take planetary responsibility for this risk, rather than placing in jeopardy the welfare of future generations.”
We would do well to heed her words.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Japanese Anti-Nuclear Movement Should Motivate Us."
Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter
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