Elinor Ostrom: An Appreciation

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Published on June 21st, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

When Elinor Ostrom became the first women to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, some economists sniped that she was not a real economist. They were factually right but in practice wrong, for she was as much an economist as anything. And conservation could have claimed her as well. Her work has massive implications for the way we should approach conservation and natural resource use.

For 40 years until her death on June 12 at age 78, she studied the economic, social and ecological factors that drive how people use local natural resources — drawing on economics, but also notions of power and rule-making drawn from political science, and using fieldwork much like an anthropologist.

Ostrom’s ground-breaking publication was Governing the Commons (1990). She had two core ideas in the book. The first is that the tragedy of the commons — the idea that renewable resources held in common would inevitably be overexploited — wasn’t inevitable and in fact may not be that common. From fisheries to forestry, Ostrom found examples of communities that organized themselves to manage their common-pool resources in a sustainable way.

The book’s second core idea was that communities that successfully manage common-pool resources share a number of characteristics:

  • Clearly defined resource boundaries,
  • An open process of decision-making about resource use,
  • Local resource rules respected by external authorities,
  • Community monitoring of compliance,
  • Graduated sanctions, and
  • Low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.

Ostrom then suggested people everywhere use these characteristics as “design principles” for engendering community stewardship of shared natural resources.

In July 2009, Ostrom published a paper in Science that probably clinched the Nobel Prize for her — and should be known to everyone in conservation. The paper itself is short and actually not that clear. The genius is that it builds on her design principles by highlighting 10 success factors for community management of natural resources, including able local leadership, moderate territorial size, and local autonomy to design and enforce resource-use rules.

Ostrom’s design principles and success factors should be in every conservationist’s toolbox. These are the secrets to lasting conservation impacts in the 95.1% of the globe that is not in a protected area.

In April 2012, Time magazine named Ostrom one of the 100 most influential people in the world. I hope she becomes even more recognized in the years ahead. Her thinking gives us a pragmatic way to catalyze local and sustainable management of renewable natural resources via knowledge, cooperation and enlightened self-interest.

Ostrom’s thinking is based on her decades of social science work. It’s optimistic in believing that many communities can avoid the tragedy of the commons, and it’s pragmatic in saying which factors matter for success.

It’s also innovative in suggesting that fostering local success factors can help communities sustain renewable natural resources indefinitely.

Does science-based, optimistic, pragmatic and innovative sound familiar?

It should, because it’s what makes The Nature Conservancy great. And it’s why we should all carry a piece of Elinor Ostrom into every conservation context.

(Image: Elinor Ostrom and Indiana University President Michael McRobbie after the announcement of her Nobel Prize award, October 12, 2009. Image credit: Indiana Public Media/Flickr.)

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