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Elinor Ostrom: What Should Be "Commons" Sense



Tragedy of the commons: the depletion of public access resources arising from self-interest (Spiliakos, 2019). A theory, credited to Garrett Hardin, that is universally engraved in introductory economics course syllabi. In a contemporary landscape that is often characterised by its issues of sustainability, the question of how common resources are best managed is at the forefront of many policymaker's minds. What can we do to address this overconsumption? How do we overcome the tragedy of the commons? 


Taxes, subsidies, and any adjacent government intervention may come to mind for many. Alternatively, one might propose the privatisation of these common pool resources to cultivate self-interest in sustainability. After all, that is what would be found on the answer guide of any conventional economics exam. However, are these solutions truly the limit of economic theory?


Elinor Ostrom is the answer. In the year of 2009, Ostrom was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences (Liberto, 2024). With a background as a PhD in political science, she challenged the traditional view that common access resources must be met with market intervention or privatisation by proving that it is possible for many communities to sustainably self-manage their resources. Research was undertaken using an interdisciplinary approach – Elinor and Vincent Ostrom founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, employing academics from multiple disciplines, economics and political science included (Ostrom & Williams). Elinor’s background in political science influenced her research approach of emphasising fieldwork. The workshop focussed on fisheries, forest systems and irrigation systems throughout Kenya, Nepal, Switzerland and many other countries. 


Through her fieldwork observations, Ostrom developed a model for the success of sustainable self-governance of common resources, outlining eight key principles:

Defined boundaries

Establish the rights and responsibilities of the community members in the access and management of the resource.

Cater rules to the circumstances

Rules should be congruent to the social, ecological, and economic landscape surrounding the resource.

Encourage participation in decision-making

Develop accountability by involving stakeholders in the decision-making process.

Monitor the management of resources

Entrench accountability by monitoring the use of resources in relation to the rules established.

Define consequences

Create a system of justice for breaches of the rules.

Conflict resolution

Ensure there is a system for the resolution of conflict between community members.

The right to organize

Recognition of the system of governance established and respect for the rules set.

Nested structures

Recognize and attend to the various diverse stakeholders of any given common resource.

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Central to this model is Ostrom’s support for a polycentric approach rather than a ‘top-down’ central authority system. For Ostrom, polycentricity is characterised by meeting complex problems with a complex network of stakeholders (government, agents of the market and local communities) who work to address the issue (Ostrom, 2009). 


In essence, Elinor Ostrom is regarded as a significant contributor to the field of economics through her research challenging long-accepted responses to commons despite her somewhat unconventional background. Ostrom’s legacy remains valuable today, proving the intersection between commerce and politics and guiding the minds of policymakers. 

References: 

Liberto, D. (2024, February 16). Elinor Ostrom: Early life, accomplishments, theory. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/elinor-ostrom.asp#:~:text=Ostrom%20contributed%20plenty%20to%20the,that%20best%20defined%20her%20legacy.

Ostrom, E. (2009, October 25). Ending the tragedy of the Commons | Elinor Ostrom | Big think. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qr5Q3VvpI7w

Ostrom, E., & Williams, O. (n.d.). The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel 2009. NobelPrize.org. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/economic-sciences/2009/ostrom/biographical/

Spiliakos, A. (2019, February 6). Tragedy of the commons: Examples & solutions: HBS Online. Business Insights Blog. https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/tragedy-of-the-commons-impact-on-sustainability-issues

Williams, J. (2018, January 15). Elinor Ostrom’s 8 rules for managing the commons. The Earthbound Report. https://earthbound.report/2018/01/15/elinor-ostroms-8-rules-for-managing-the-commons/

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