25 Jul 2011

Elinor Ostrom in London for ecology conference

Fran: Do you have a message for the general public?

Elinor: We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house. Some of the homes that have been built in the last 10 years just appall me. Why do humans need huge homes? I was born poor and I didn’t know you bought clothes at anything but the Goodwill until I went to college. Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.


The world's great living economist, famed for her work on commons, will be in London in March.


Well actually she is political economist because the sexist academic establishment in the 1950s didn't have a lot of time for women studying economics.

They even tried to talk her out of politics:

The graduate advisor in political science strongly discouraged me from thinking about a doctorate, given that I already had a very good “professional” position. He indicated that the “best” I could do with a Ph.D. was to teach at some city college with a very heavy teaching load. My earlier experience with finding a professional position in Cambridge led me to ignore this warning and apply for an assistantship so I could pursue a Ph.D. on a full-time basis. Fortunately, I was granted an assistantship.'

Conference details here.

These are some of my notes on her work:

She is a former President of the American Political Science Association, is a Professor at both Indiana and Universities. She has won numerous awards, for example, in 1999 she became the first women to win the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science . In 2010, Utne Reader magazine included Ostrom as one of the "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World."[11]

Traditionally economists have argued that there are two forms of property, private and state. Economies are mixed i.e. some activities are such as policing are largely controlled by the state, while others are provided by the market. Ostrom argues that a third form of property, neither privately owned nor state controlled, by based on common ownership, is also significant. In turn, economic activity is not merely split between the alternatives of market and state but can be regulated by collective social activity.

Ostrom can be seen as the economist or political economist best placed to conceptualise the explosion in web based activity and social media. The acceleration growth of the World Wide Web, peer to peer production and Wikipedia has been investigated by economists but forcing them into the pre-existing categories of market and state is far from satisfactory. Ostrom uses the term Common Pool Resources (CPR) to categorise such forms of property.

Ostrom's practical research looks at how common pool property systems function or sometimes failed to work in maintaining key ecosystems including marine fisheries, forests and grazing land. Ostrom challenges the notion of the tragedy of the commons showing that while commons can fail, we should not assume that they will always do so. Neither is 'commons', Ostrom insists, an absence of property rights but often is based on carefully constructed rules for management of a resource.

Ostrom argues that people can construct rules that allow them to exploit the environment without destroying it. In a world where ecological realities increasingly threaten material prosperity her work provides a way of thinking about how humanity can create truly sustainable development, living within limits while meeting human needs. The implications of Ostrom's work are vast, conventional economists have rarely directly focussed on environmental issues, at best ignoring notions of environmental limits and arguing that ecological problems can simply be costed and such negative externalities internalised.

Intriguingly, despite coming from a Hayekian background based in the discipline of Public Choice Theory, Ostrom's key theoretical interest in 'commons' was also one of Karl Marx's enduring concerns. While she has never used the label she also can be understood as a feminist thinker. She is an enthusiastic advocate of the rights of indigenous people and respect for the environment. She is an advocate of policies for tackling climate change, however, she is critical of the very notion of policy if it is imposed from above. Equally she distances herself from socialism if it is statist but endorses collectivist solutions to economic problems in some circumstances. Ostrom who once described herself 'as a stubborn son of a gun' is a thinker who it is difficult to pigeonhole with existing categories in economics and political philosophy.

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