Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Elinor Ostrom breaks the Nobel mould

The economics profession needs to be shaken up. Ostrom's Nobel prize should encourage us to take a fresh approach
Kevin Gallagher,guardian.co.uk,
13 October 2009


The economics profession is in such disarray that one of the Nobel prizes in economics this year went to political scientist Elinor Ostrom – the first woman to be awarded the economics prize. This is an excellent choice (in any year) not only because of what Ostrom has contributed to social theory but also because of how she goes about her work.

In a nutshell, Ostrom won the Nobel prize for showing that privatising natural resources is not the route to halting environmental degradation.

In most economics classes the environment is usually taught as being the victim of the "tragedy of the commons". If one assumes, like many economists do, that individuals are ruthlessly selfish individuals, and you put those individuals onto a commonly owned resource, the resource will eventually be destroyed. The solution: privatise the commons. Everyone will have ownership of small parcels and treat that parcel better than when they shared it.

Many environmental experts also reject the tragedy of the commons argument and say the government should step in.

Ostrom says the government may not be the best allocator of public resources either. Often governments are seen as illegitimate, or their rules cannot be enforced. Indeed, Ostrom's life work looking at forests, lakes, groundwater basins and fisheries shows that the commons can be an opportunity for communities themselves to manage a resource.

In her classic work Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrom shows that under certain conditions, when communities are given the right to self-organise they can democratically govern themselves to preserve the environment.

At the policy level, Ostrom's findings give credence to the many indigenous and peasant movements across the developing world where people are trying to govern the land they have managed for centuries but run into conflict with governments and global corporations.
Some economists on the frontier of their discipline have started to use Ostrom's insights in their work, [... and found] that communities should be paid for their services, since they can sometimes do a far better job than government or corporations at managing resources. Indeed, "payment for environmental services" has become a buzzword in development circles. Now even the World Bank has a fund for PES schemes across the world. [...]

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