The Victory of the Commons: Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom proved that people can—and do—work together to manage commonly-held resources without degrading them.
by Jay Walljasper
The biggest roadblock standing in the way of many people's recognition of the importance of the commons came tumbling down when Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics.
Over many decades, Ostrom has documented how various communities manage common resources — grazing lands, forests, irrigation waters, fisheries — equitably and sustainably over the long term. The Nobel Committee's recognition of her work effectively debunks popular theories about the Tragedy of the Commons, which hold that private property is the only effective method to prevent finite resources from being ruined or depleted.
Awarding the world's most prestigious economics prize to a scholar who champions cooperative behavior greatly boosts the legitimacy of the commons as a framework for solving our social and environmental problems. Ostrom's work also challenges the current economic orthodoxy that there are few, if any, alternatives to privatization and markets in generating wealth and human well being.
The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a scenario in which commonly held land is inevitably degraded because everyone in a community is allowed to graze livestock there. This parable was popularized by wildlife biologist Garrett Hardin in the late 1960s, and was embraced as a principle by the emerging environmental movement. But Ostrom's research refutes this abstract concept with the real life experience from places like Nepal, Kenya and Guatemala.
"When local users of a forest have a long-term perspective, they are more likely to monitor each other's use of the land, developing rules for behavior," she cites as an example. "It is an area that standard market theory does not touch."
Garrett Hardin himself later revised his own view, noting that what he described was actually the Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.
Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz, also a Nobel winner, commented, "Conservatives used the Tragedy of the Commons to argue for property rights, and that efficiency was achieved as people were thrown off the commons...What Ostrom has demonstrated is the existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of the commons without having to resort to property rights."
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