Women You Should Know:
by Mark Walton
In the course of my formal education I’ve been taught Garrett Hardin’s theory of ‘the tragedy of the commons’ twice, both times as fact. In quite different contexts, the message was the same: unless public or private institutions manage ‘common goods’ such as land, water, forests or fisheries, they will be depleted and overexploited by greedy, uncooperative individuals.
Whilst I was being taught that we could not be trusted to manage our shared resources, one woman was studying the facts on the ground. Elinor Ostrom was demonstrating that, not only are groups of individuals quite capable of cooperating to manage complex resources, but that they can do so more sustainably, and more efficiently, than either governments or private companies.
From the 1960s onwards, Ostrom studied many different examples of local, collective systems of managing shared resources, ranging from ground water in California to fisheries in Indonesia. She and her team were able to identify some key principles of successful management. They found that neighbours came together to set boundaries and assign shares and that common tasks were done together. Rules were set, and monitors watched out for rule-breakers ,who could be fined or excluded.
The arrangements she studied were not put in place by governments or large conservation organisations, they were built from the bottom up. They were based in local cultures and discussed face to face. They were based on trust, reciprocity and collective action.
Ostrom identified that some goods are neither ‘public’ nor ‘private,’ but instead are ‘common pool resources’ and capable of being sustainably managed and fairly distributed by ordinary people, without recourse to either the state or the market. In 2009, she was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in recognition of a lifetime spent breaking new ground and challenging economic orthodoxies.
Ostrom herself was always keen to point out there are ‘no panaceas,’ but that where there is trust, cooperation and communication there may be no end to the resourcefulness of people to manage the resources they share, in ways that are fair and that enrich, rather than deplete, the resource itself.
Elinor Ostrom died in June 2012, the month that I established Shared Assets, a social enterprise that supports the development of new ways of managing our woodlands, waterways, parks and green spaces. Ostrom’s work is both a guide and an inspiration. But my admiration isn’t only academic or based on a shared belief in practical, bottom-up solutions, her down-to-earth humour, the humanitarianism that informs her work, and the twinkle in her eye, make me think that Elinor Ostrom was someone I’d have enjoyed sitting up late with, and sharing a whisky.
At a time when our world is convulsed by ongoing crises within both the state and the market, you might think that we would all know about a woman who won a Nobel Prize for describing an alternative way of organising ourselves and our resources. As our old world order groans and crumbles around us, we all need to know a lot more about Elinor Ostrom.
Mark Walton is the the founder and Director of Shared Assets, a London-based social enterprise that works with communities and landowners to develop new ways of managing woodlands, green spaces, parks and waterways. Shared Assets' vision is the creation of a 21st century commons. Mark is also a poet, spoken word performer and itinerant boat dweller.
Zesty has been running the Women You Should Know series every March since 2012 - to look at previous posts, use the blog archive on the right of this page.