Ostrom (1933-2012): Beyond the Commons

Indiana University announced today that Prof. Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, died today of pancreatic cancer.

Ostrom was a textbook example of why diversity in perspectives and ideas always benefits any profession. At a time when Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (when commonly owned resources are unsustainably exploited) was the ruling paradigm of resource management, Ostrom’s studies of resources managed sustainably by local communities pointed out the limitations of the Tragedy paradigm. As stated by the Royal Swedish Academy’s announcement at the time of her award:

“Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.”

I have been reading the “Northwoods Reader” series by Cully Gage (a.k.a. Charles Van Riper), describing life in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the turn of the last century. At that time, land and waterways in the UP were a patchwork of large land holdings by industry and government (federal, state, and local), and small holdings by private individuals and families. However, no individuals would have been able to survive the long UP winters without subsistence hunting and fishing, which often took place locally on lands other than those owned by the individual. There was a well-developed system of socially acceptable behaviors related to hunting and fishing, regarding the time of year, sex, size, and number of individuals harvested. The irrelevance of land ownership with respect to subsistence-level resource use seemed similar to Finland and Sweden’s “Everyman’s Rights”, where the concept of “trespassing” is not directly translatable. (No surprise that this system migrated with the many Finns who settled in the UP). I often can’t help but reflect upon Ostrom’s work when I read passages about the local hunting and fishing practices that the “Lansing bureaucrats” called poaching, a concept derided as naïve at best by the locals.


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