Nobel Prize-Winner Elinor Ostrom Dies at 78

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Common Dreams

Nobel Prize-Winner Elinor Ostrom Dies at 78

Ostrom's work highlighted the power of "the commons"

by
Common Dreams staff

(Photo: Chris Meyer / Indiana University)

Elinor Ostrom, the only woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, died today at the age of 78 from cancer.

Indiana University, where Ostrom had been a faculty member, remarked in a statement on her passing that her Nobel-winning work "showed that ordinary people are capable of creating rules and institutions that allow for the sustainable and equitable management of shared resources. Her work countered the conventional wisdom that only private ownership or top-down regulation could prevent a 'tragedy of the commons,' in which users would inevitably destroy the resources that they held in common."

In a 2010 interview with YES! Magazine, Ostrom said in answering what her message to the general public would be, "Some of our mentality about what it means to have a good life is, I think, not going to help us in the next 50 years. We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth."

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Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom explaining the concept thinking behind the tragedy of commons and how to go beyond it.
Elinor Ostrom: Going beyond the tragedy of commons by Stockholm Resilience Centre

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Indiana University: IU community mourns passing of Distinguished Professor and Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The entire Indiana University community mourns the passing today of Distinguished Professor Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her groundbreaking research on the ways that people organize themselves to manage resources.

Ostrom, 78, died of cancer at 6:40 a.m. today at IU Health Bloomington Hospital surrounded by friends. She was senior research director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Distinguished Professor and Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, and professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

She is survived by Vincent Ostrom, her husband and colleague. She also leaves behind a large extended family of colleagues, collaborators, staff and friends, in Bloomington and on five continents, who worked closely with her during an extraordinary 50-year career.

Ostrom shared the 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, also known as the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, with University of California economist Oliver Williamson. She was the first woman and remains the only woman to be awarded the prize.

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Jay Walljasper at On the Commons
Elinor Ostrom's 8 Principles for Managing A Commons

Elinor Ostrom shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her lifetime of scholarly work investigating how communities succeed or fail at managing common pool (finite) resources such as grazing land, forests and irrigation waters. On the Commons is co-sponsor of a Commons Festival at Augsburg College in Minneapolis October 7-8 where she will speak. (See accompanying sidebar for details.)

Ostrom, a political scientist at Indiana University, received the Nobel Prize for her research proving the importance of the commons around the world. Her work investigating how communities co-operate to share resources drives to the heart of debates today about resource use, the public sphere and the future of the planet. She is the first woman to be awarded the Nobel in Economics.

Ostrom’s achievement effectively answers popular theories about the “Tragedy of the Commons”, which has been interpreted to mean that private property is the only means of protecting finite resources from ruin or depletion. She has documented in many places around the world how communities devise ways to govern the commons to assure its survival for their needs and future generations.

A classic example of this was her field research in a Swiss village where farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow to graze their cows. While this would appear a perfect model to prove the tragedy-of-the-commons theory, Ostrom discovered that in reality there were no problems with overgrazing. That is because of a common agreement among villagers that one is allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they can care for over the winter—a rule that dates back to 1517. Ostrom has documented similar effective examples of “governing the commons” in her research in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, and Los Angeles.

Based on her extensive work, Ostrom offers 8 principles for how commons can be governed sustainably and equitably in a community.

8 Principles for Managing a Commons

1. Define clear group boundaries.

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

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