Pioneering commons researcher Elinor Ostrom died on Tuesday from pancreatic cancer. She was 78.
The first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics, Ostrom challenged the “tragedy of the commons” theory that stated that the depletion of shared resources is inevitable by demonstrating that ordinary people at the local level can often manage natural resources better than governments or private companies and do it over long periods of time. Her findings are based on decades of field research studying how local communities organize to successfully manage "common pool resources" such as fisheries, forests, irrigation water, grazing lands, and more.
Her Nobel win in the economic science category sparked controversy as she was not an economist. Ostrom's work as a political scientists provided a much needed tonic against the one-size fits all approach of big government and the relentless call for privatization that's a bulwark of conservative ideology. Her research brought public attention to a third, radically democratic, time-honored, culture-spanning way to manage resources that does not depend on government or business – the commons.
A longtime proponent of the commons, Ostrom identified a set of design principles found in successfully-managed common resources. These principles include: clearly defining boundaries; establishing rules regarding the use of the resources; including community members in making decisions about the resources; monitoring of the resources by people who are accountable to the community; applying graduated sanctions for those who violate the rules; establishing a cheap and accessible means of conflict resolution; having the community’s self-determination recognized by outside authorities; and, for large common resources, having nested layers of organization.
Having grown up during the Great Depression, Ostrom’s interest in cooperation was sparked at an early age and she continued to advocate for the commons throughout her life. She held a belief that humans are not inherently selfish beings, focused solely on self-preservation, and argued that the people who use resources are in the best position to manage them as a commons.
A celebrated academic, Ostrom looked to small, organized, local communities to understand of how best to manage commons. In a 2010 interview, Ostrom expressed her concern at our collective overuse of resources and stressed the need to move toward a healthier, collaborative future saying, “We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house…Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.”
At a time when the world desperately needs to share resources, her wisdom will be greatly missed.
Check out her Nobel lecture here to learn more about her groundbreaking research, a must for sharing advocates everywhere.