Ostrom’s research focused on common-pool resources, like fish stocks, timber, or water. CPRs are similar to public goods except that use by one individual actively depletes the supply available to everyone else, and so managing them is a delicate task of balancing access and supply. Ostrom examined the ways communities organize to solve this problem, often through agreements of common ownership or local-level regulation. Her work represented an important middle ground in public policy debates between advocates of global governance statutes to regulate natural resources, and advocates of market-based environmental policy.
Indeed, Ostrom had a piece published today – written in the last stages of her illness – arguing for such a middle ground, of an overlapping network of locally-grounded and international agreements, as a desirable outcome from the Rio +20 conference that begins next week. “Time is the natural resource in shortest supply,” she writes. It is a maxim she lived by, producing research of the highest quality until the very end. She will be missed.
Elinor Ostrom is one of a small number of thinkers about citizenship who combine empirical insights, moral arguments, and strategies. The ideal for Lin Ostrom is a group of people who manage to overcome collective action problems, such as the “tragedy of the commons,” through voluntary action. The tragedy of the commons is enormously important–if we perish as a species, it may be because we fail to address such problems as climate change that can be understood this way. Yet Lin has shown empirically and with great rigor that people can voluntarily overcome collective-action problems–using appropriate rules and techniques, under appropriate circumstances.
Promoting such achievements requires a whole set of strategies, from constitutional and other legal provisions, to reforms of institutions, to research that reveals effective techniques, to civic education that imparts the necessary skills. As just one example of her many reform proposals, Ostrom argues that we should reverse the trend toward consolidating school districts, because each school board teaches its members participatory skills. Going beyond mere proposals, Ostrom has helped to build and lead institutions that promote and embody these ideas. The Nobel Prize will surely help endow the Workshop that she and her distinguished husband Vincent Ostrom have created.
In my ideal university, Ostrom’s methods and topics would be right at the heart of the whole enterprise. There is no more important question than “How can we improve the world?” The scarcity of really rigorous answers–not to mention the marginality of the very question–is a scandal. Ostrom’s work is a shining exception that richly deserves recognition. As one of my colleagues wrote last night, “this is the first Nobel Prize for civic studies.”
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