Elinor Ostrom: The Commoner

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Ric Cradick

Sharing is one of the first things we learn as small children, yet capitalism suggests that we set it aside as a naive notion: It’s every man for himself.

Elinor Ostrom is one of the first social scientists to specifically study the things we share–from oceans and forests to roads and money systems–and breathe fresh life into an old term: the commons.

Ostrom’s key idea is that neither the state nor the market is the best manager of our collective resources–it’s us, we the people. The commons concept is catching on in a big way as we look at how to lighten our impact on the earth, live within the means of our natural resources, and navigate the ownership issues of a new digital era. Ostrom’s research is often the foundation for reformers in these areas, which is one reason she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in economic sciences.

Ostrom often speaks of growing up in a frugal, Depression-era household as an inspiration for her work: In that atmosphere, people had to pull together and make the most of what they had. As we bump up against the limits of our economic and environmental systems, it may be time to revisit the spirit of collective action.


Read an interview with Elinor Ostrom at Utne.com, excerpted from a Q&A in Yes! magazine and published in the September-October Utne Reader as part of a series of articles on the commons. Read a profile of Ostrom on the Swedish Wire, and learn more about the commons in our commons reading guide.

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