A Life's Work That Will Last Forever

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The physical world lost a great scholar last week with the passing of Elinor Ostrom, a 2009 Nobel Laureate. Ostrom left us with scholarly works that brought economic and property rights theory into the field. Why do we see the tragedy of the commons? When do we see it? And why, in some common resource pools, is it non-existent?

Ostrom’s work helped to organize many pieces of the environmental management puzzle. She demonstrated in various places across the globe that the tragedy is not necessary for common pool resources (CPRs) but is likely when at least informal rules do not exist.

There is no single solution to motivate long term environmental stewardship. In her 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective ActionOstrom notes that “[n]either the state nor the market is universally successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems.” Each CPR is much more particular. There is, however, a common framework to help understand why some CPRs are managed for long-term productive use while others are not. Cumulating the evidence and bringing these factors into view was one of Ostrom’s great contributions.

Examining multiple CPRs across the globe, Ostrom and associates designed a set of principles that helped predict resource stability. Provided these rights, at least informally, the CPR is more likely to be well stewarded.

  • Clearly defined boundaries and effective exclusion of un-entitled parties;
  • Locally adapted rules for transfer;
  • Collective decision making that includes resource stakeholders;
  • Accountable (even stakeholder) monitors;
  • Enforcement that assesses appropriate sanctions for resource violations;
  • Low cost mechanisms for conflict resolution;
  • Recognition of community rights by higher levels of governance;
I think of CPRs managed under these rights as managed commons. They have property rights, formal or informal, that provide the necessary incentives to steward and invest in the resource.

Elinor Ostrom will be greatly missed. Her spirit and great contributions to economics and the social sciences will forever remain with us. She has organized ideas about CPRs in a manner that will help increase consistency of future research. She has created a great platform of understanding from which much research will continue to flourish.

Cross-posted at Environmental Trends.

Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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