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.

Green Film Series: “Into Eternity”

Green Film Series Addresses Nuclear Waste
The Green Film Series presents “Into Eternity” from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Thursday, June 21, in Forestry G002.

Admission is free; a $3 donation is suggested. There will be coffee, dessert and a discussion.

The one-hour film explores what the long-term storage of nuclear waste poses for human civilization.

The discussion facilitator will be Wayne Pennington, chair, Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences.

For more information, see Into Eternity.

The Green Film Series is partially funded with a grant from the League of Women Voters of the Copper Country, Friends of the Land of Keweenaw and the UP Environmental Coalition.

Sponsors are Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative, the Keweenaw Land Trust, the Michigan Tech Center for Water and Society and the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

For the schedule of upcoming films, see Green Film Series.

Nasty cow pasties

Every Saturday my four-year-old son and I start our errands by going to a local dairy farm (Hidden Acres Farm) to get a gallon of milk. Since moving to the UP, I’ve been trying to localize our food supply, mainly by gardening in our backyard, joining Wintergreen Farm (Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA)), buying eggs from a friend and now our milk.

Aside from sustainability concerns (e.g., carbon footprints, food miles, local jobs, slow food/money/life, and the like), I garden with my son and bring him to these places so that he understands not only where food comes from but also how it comes to be food. He knows that beans and seeds must be planted, fed, and watered to get plants that produce fruits and vegetables, he knows that chickens love worms (above all else), and now he knows how cows eat grass, how they keep flies off of them (ears and tail), and today what a cowpie looks like.

I was stunned at first when he pointed one out and asked what it was. I then realized that he hasn’t been around pastured cows before (just those at the zoo) and therefore has never had the opportunity to see a cowpie. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, but I had nearby opportunities to be exposed to nature (in the Forest Preserves) and agriculture (such as Wagner Farm in Glenview) where I was able to figure out things like cowpies. We are only now understanding how critical this exposure to the natural world is for young children and their development. I suppose I have taken my early exposure for granted up until now.

On the way back to our car, one of the farm owners greeted us and I told her that my son had seen his first cowpie today. I’m sure on the inside she was rolling her eyes at such a bizarre and slightly pathetic revelation, but she smiled and said, “My son calls those ‘nasty cow pasties'”. Very fitting!

Teeth from every angle

Ann Gibbons penned an interesting News Focus article in this week’s Science, reviewing research presented at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center on two Mayan communities on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico; one that was relatively wealthy and could afford soda and processed foods with refined sugar and flour, and one that was poorer and subsisted on more traditional maize-based foods. Residents of the wealthier village not only suffered more cavities (as one might expect), but far more problems with overbites, teeth overcrowding, impacted wisdom teeth, and other dental issues that often require the services of an orthodontist. It turns out that having lots of food in the diet that is coarse or difficult to chew (read: unprocessed) is important (especially for children) to help the lower jaw grow larger (allowing all those teeth to come in straight and uncrowded), and for adults to scrape harmful bacteria and plaque off of the surface of the teeth.

This special meeting focused on the “Evolution of Human Teeth and Jaws”, and was very diverse in disciplines represented: paleoarchaeologists, anthropologists, dentists, and food scientists. This area is a bit outside of my expertise, but I enjoyed reading about the findings because these interesting questions, and fascinating answers, really do require a multidisciplinary team looking at the issue from many angles. Indeed, it is not only exciting to work in these kinds of teams, but just as exciting to read about the results of others.

Food (Green Film Series) – May 17th

Green Film Series Issues & Dialogue:
Food
Date/Time:  7:00-8:30 pm, Thursday, May 17
 Location:  135 Fisher Hall, MTU
Cost:   FREE; $3 suggested donation.  Coffee, dessert, and facilitated discussion with Sarah Salo
 
May 17 Food – Food is a local and a global issue. The film explores whether it is possible to design a food system that ensures health, accessibility and affordability for everyone? (49 min.)

Discussion facilitator:  Sara Salo, School Food Tour. Meet Sara Salo, Founder & Executive Director of the School Food Bicycle Tour. Join us as we welcome Sara back to Houghton (she’s a Houghton HS graduate) after her epic 6,000-mile solo ride with the goal of empowering students, schools and communities to advocate for equitable access to wholesome food. She earned a M.S. in Public Health from Oregon State University. Sara is fascinated with examining and strategizing how the roles of place, community and individual come together to create and maintain sustainable food systems.  School Food Tour http://schoolfoodtour.org/about/
 
The Green Film program is partially funded with a grant from:
♦ League of Women Voters of the Copper Country ♦ Friends of the Land of Keweenaw ♦ U.P. Environmental Coalition
 
Green Film Series is cosponsored by:
Lake Superior Stewardship Initiative   http://lakesuperiorstewardship.org/
Keweenaw Land Trust   http://www.keweenawlandtrust.org/
Michigan Tech Center for Water & Society   http://www.mtcws.mtu.edu/
Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship   http://www.kuuf.net/
 
2012 Green Film Series schedule posted at: http://wupcenter.mtu.edu/news/2012/2012GreenFilmSeries.html

(Time) frame of mind

Last week I attended the 2012 Trans-Atlantic Research & Development Interchange on Sustainability (TARDIS) workshop, in lovely Seggauberg, Austria. The theme of this year’s workshop was “Time and time frames for sustainability”, and the attendees did not disappoint on the theme. Much of the discussion visited two main issues:

  1. How do we manage our systems for sustainability if we can’t predict the future?
  2. How do we identify and correct the mismatches between the rate at which catastrophes occur, and the rate at which humans and political entities can respond to them?

While we came a bit closer to understanding these two issues, sadly we did not solve them. While it was encouraging to see the diversity of approaches that have been attempted to arrive at a solution, we seemed to be constrained by solutions that wouldn’t feel like a “shock doctrine” approach to the status quo…. individuals to societies tend not to respond politely to this approach, even when it might be the fastest way to a better quality of life.

One interesting sidebar was the notion that while Western cultures tend to think of time linearly (it only flows in one direction, usually towards progress but occasionally over a cliff), Eastern cultures think of time as cyclical or circular. It occurred to me that this also may simply be a function of the time frame; if systems evolve as the Panarchy folks advocate, then a very short-term view of a system in the process of maturing or reorganizing may seem linear. Take a step back for a longer-term view, and you may see that the system does follow a cycle, with a systemic reset every so often to clear the system of dysfunction. However, step even further back, and a progressive system of cycles may emerge. Of course, there may be a step further back than that, as our five previous global mass extinctions remind us.

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Scrip times

It seems that when money gets scarce, new forms of money emerge to fill the gap. One town in Greece has developed a local currency called the TEM to help them maintain their economic systems against the tide of collapse in that country; I would expect many other towns to follow. Although scrip systems are more common in depressions, there have been other systems (such as Ithaca Hours in Ithaca, New York) that have been developed and used more to support local business than to weather economic storms. Supporting local businesses provides a “multiplier effect” for circulating local dollars: as they pass from citizens to businesses and back to citizens, each dollar does more “work” locally (if you will) than if national or multinational businesses are frequented (while the labor is local, the profits are sent elsewhere and rarely invested locally). The EPA put out a great manual over 20 years ago on this issue, and it is still relevant today.

If you had to (or wanted to) develop a local currency, what would it be called?

Walking is so pedestrian

This recent article in Slate on the amount of walking that Americans do relative to those in other countries could not have been more timely for me (and thanks to Grist.com for bringing it to my attention!). I read it while in Newport, Rhode Island at a professional meeting (the US-International Association for Landscape Ecology, of all things) and it really struck a chord.

Always the cheapskate, I found a hotel that was almost one-third of the price of the hotel where the meeting was held, and it was only about a mile away: an easily walkable distance. I like to build these sorts of walks into my day, especially when I’m at a conference that involves a lot of sitting in dark rooms for hours on end. The morning walk ensures that I am awake for the presentations, and the evening walk allows me to reflect back on what I’ve learned.

However, although the walk looked straightforward and perfectly safe on the web, it was considerably less so in reality. At least a third of it involved walking in a grassy/sandy ditch while cars sped past on a two-lane road (and I was not the only walker using this route), and the rest of the way included narrow sidewalks littered with street signs, fire hydrants, and other impediments (I suppose I should include dog poop here as well). Marked and posted pedestrian crossings across two busy county roads were few and far between.

It seemed odd to me that a tourist-based town was so difficult for pedestrians, especially given that the town was settled far before automobiles were invented (some of the old houses in the historic district dated back to the 1700’s). Most likely, the space once devoted to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages was given over to automobiles, with not much thought given to their inherent incompatibilities. Walkability is often emphasized in conversations regarding sustainable cities, and now I have a very personal understanding of this issue.

The value of money

I found a small bit of time over the weekend to read Mark Boyle’s recent book, “The Moneyless Man: A year of freeconomic living” (2010, One World Publications). He succeeded to live for a year without spending or exchanging money; all of his needs were met through bartering, growing or building things himself, riding his bike (or occasionally hitchhiking), or using the cast-offs of others. Although he acknowledged the role that money plays in a market system (regardless of whether it is capitalist, socialist, communist, or other), he felt that money has become disassociated with this central role: to help make the trade of goods and services more efficient. Instead, money has become a end goal to itself; to accumulate as much as possible.

The book is an interesting read, and has a good deal to contribute to communities that are interested in supplying more goods and services locally, and for those looking to simplify their lives. Unfortunately some of his methods are illegal in some (or all!) parts of the US (e.g., dumpster diving, collecting wild edible plants and mushrooms on private property), but the illegality of these methods does give the reader an opportunity to wonder why these laws are necessary.

The book brought to mind the documentary “Once upon a time in Knoxville“, about a sort-of planned community within spitting distance of my old haunts in southern Knoxville during my grad school days. There, one enterprising man has built an entire neighborhood of houses out of discarded materials, and rents the houses out. Sadly, the house I rented (presumably not made from recycled things) was quite a bit worse than the houses he had put together! But perhaps I couldn’t have expected much for $200/month…..

If nothing else, Mr. Boyle provides the reader encouragement to take some time off from “the rat race” (if even for a long weekend) and contemplate what exactly is needed versus what is a want masquerading as a need. That is certainly something most people in developed countries could do on a regular basis!