On Elinor Ostrom’s no fuss solution to the Tragedy of the Commons

by ericaeller


To me, Elinor Ostrom’s ideas seem normal and reasonable. They don’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination. In fact, they seem so strikingly ordinary, that they could easily be overlooked out of context. Yet, our time is marked by the complex quagmire of globalized neoliberal market economics that has gained almost unchallenged traction. In this context, her intuitive and relatively simple ideas are considered revolutionary.

What she is most known for is her so-called Nobel Prize in Economics. To be more specific, she won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel of 2009, as there is technically no prize devoted specifically to economics. Elinor Ostrom was an odd choice, considering she was an outsider to economics. She was more well known for her work in political science and ecology; she was a woman whose ideas do not fall neatly into any ideological camp. Yet, she had essentially devised a template or a “design” to deal with the “tragedy of the commons,” a problem which presupposes the inability of civilizations to manage commonly held resources without depleting or destroying them. This theory was promulgated by ecologist Garret Hardin, who popularized the idea of overpopulation as the leading difficulty facing humankind with his famous 1968 paper entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” However, Elinor Ostrom found many examples of people managing commons without such calamitous outcomes through her empirical observations and related scientific research.

She derived from her research eight underlying design principles which she had observed in communities in Africa that did not exhaust their commonly held resources:

8 Principles for Managing a Commons

1. Define clear group boundaries.

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

These principles sound rather quotidian to me. They are fair, egalitarian, respectful, diplomatic, inclusive, and practical in that no abstract models are required to implement them. They are spun from the fiber of common sense. Arguably, the only reason such principles could be considered revolutionary is because of how detached, abstract, and obscure modern economic theory has become. It is loaded with jargon, indoctrination methods, and complex calculation models that require a steep learning curve just to approach an everyday topic — how resources are managed. Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics theories (which Naomi Klein calls free market fundamentalism in her book The Shock Doctrine) have prevailed so much that their linked neoliberal ideology has become naturalized as the status quo. Plenty of criticism from economic thinkers has targeted this ideology, but for Derek Wall, few critics have broken ties with it so fully as Elinor Ostrom because of her ability to think beyond markets and states. The fact that she is able to think outside of the “norm” of these prevailing theories makes people consider her work incredibly shocking, hopeful, and influential.

It should not go without saying that her work derives directly from the third world — from “under-developed” countries and their local communities. Such an approach veritably flips the teleology of “progress” on its head even though her theory has been upheld by the progressive West as the next step forward for the dilemma of the “tragedy of the commons.” In fact, she honored the wisdom of locals for its potential to protect their lands more effectively than governments. Her premise is reinforced by a recent study on how indigenous Peruvians are more effective at managing and conserving land than their regulatory government.

All in all, her theories are literally closer to home than neoliberal models of consumer capital, derivatives, markets and shares, states and all of the related terminology that constructs a grand farce of “economic reality” in our time. Her work serves as a means to call a spade a spade. She reminds us that common resource management is, in its simplest terms, a socially-constructed set of rules and determinations made by and for the people who depend on those resources. It does not gain strategic, ethical, or economic superiority through the adoption of a top-down abstract management ethos that drowns us in a complex lexicon designed to implement our social conditioning as market-based consumers by means of manipulative puppet-mastery.