Remembering Elinor Ostrom

by Scott London

I was saddened by the news that Elinor Ostrom passed away today. She was the winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics (along with Oliver Williamson). She and I shared a common connection to the Kettering Foundation, but I first discovered her work some 20 years ago after the release of her seminal book Governing the Commons.

Elinor Ostrom was a maverick, someone who challenged conventional wisdom in political science and economics. By awarding her the Nobel Prize in Economics, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences did something rather remarkable — it acknowledged the need for new models and new ways of thinking in economics. It was a daring choice, and I think a very good one.

She was the first woman to win the economics prize, which is significant. And with the exception of the prize to Amartya Sen (for his work on welfare economics) it was one of the few awards that recognized alternatives to traditional neoclassical economics.

Ostrom showed that the three dominant economic models used for dealing with collective resource management — the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners’s dilemma, and the logic of collective action — were all inadequate. They were not necessarily wrong, but the conditions under which they held were very specific. 

Her research suggested that there were other viable systems for managing shared resources. For example, she looked at Swiss grazing pastures, Japanese forests, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines that are based on sound principles of collective decision-making that are both democratic and empowering to ordinary people.

The subject of her research had long been considered peripheral to the main business of economics. But today, as we face a global recession and a very serious environmental crisis, her work has special resonance. It offers a roadmap for making resource management more democratic, more participatory, more community-based, and above all more responsive to ordinary citizens.

For more on Elinor Ostrom: