The Science of Cooperation
Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom takes the prize for her commons sense
This article is part of a series of articles on the commons. For more, read The Case for Commons, and A New Political Dawn. For more writing on the commons from the alternative press, visit utne.com/Commons.
Elinor Ostrom was an unusual choice for the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. She is the first woman to receive the prize, and her doctorate is in political science, not economics (though she considers herself a political economist). And while standard economics focuses on competition, her work is about cooperation.
Ostrom’s influential book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action was published in 1990. But her research on common property goes back to the 1960s, when she wrote her dissertation on groundwater in California. In 1973 she and her husband, Vincent Ostrom, founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, which has produced hundreds of studies of the ways in which communities self-organize to solve common problems.
Fran Korten, Yes! magazine’s publisher, interviewed Ostrom shortly after Ostrom received the Nobel Prize.
Many people associate “the commons” with Garrett Hardin’s famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” He says that if, for example, you have a pasture that everyone in a village has access to, then each person will put as many cows on that land as he can to maximize his own benefit, and pretty soon the pasture will be overgrazed and become worthless. What’s the difference between your perspective and Hardin’s?I don’t see the human as hopeless. There’s a tendency to presume people act just for short-term profit. But anyone who knows about small-town businesses and how people in a community relate to one another realizes that many decisions are not made just for profit, and that humans do try to organize and solve problems.
If you are in a fishery or have a pasture and you know that not destroying it is to your family’s long-term benefit, and if you can talk with the other people who use that resource, then you may well figure out rules that fit that local setting and organize to enforce them. But if community members don’t have a good way of communicating with each other or the costs of self-organization are too high, then they won’t organize, and there will be failures.
So are you saying that Hardin is sometimes right? Yes. People say I disproved him, and I come back and say, “No, that’s not right. I’ve not disproved him. I’ve shown that his assertion that common property will always be degraded is wrong.” He was addressing a problem of considerable significance that we need to take seriously. It’s just that he went too far. He said people could never manage the commons well.
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