You’ll be hearing a lot about the “commons” for the next few days. It’s about time. There are celebrations taking place around the world — and not just by people, but maybe in the plant and animal kingdoms as well — for Oslo’s award of the Nobel Prize for Economics to Elinor Ostrom. Not only is she the first woman to win the prize but her work on common resource management offers a refreshingly non-traditional lesson on resource economics.
The commons is what we share together. From parks and clean water to scientific knowledge, and the Internet, some things are no one’s private property. They exist for everyone’s benefit, and must be protected for future generations.
Instead of proposing turning over our shared natural resources — water and forests for example — to corporations, Dr. Ostrom has reached an opposite conclusion. Ordinary citizens can effectively govern their commons and ensure their health for generations to come.
Is that simple insight worth a Nobel Prize? I think so. There’s a lot of wrong-headed posturing out there — free marketers insist that the market is the only entity that can, for example, manage water — even as corporations pollute it with impunity (see the Oct. 12 NY Times cover story). But that doesn’t sit so well with folks who recognize water as a right and commons belonging to all people and all of nature. From Asia to Latin America, Ostrom’s research shows us examples of citizens groups successfully governing their abundance.
Dr. Ostrom has had her detractors. When we hear the term “commons,” many of us remember Garret Hardin’s 1968 article in Science magazine, “The Tragedy of the Commons”. He describes a chaotic, unmanaged commons that ends with people pillaging each other and the environment. That happens in some cases, Dr. Ostrom would concur. But that’s a very limited view. While some commons are poorly managed, many thrive. Communities come together to prune their forests and shovel debris out of irrigation ditches, frequently in collaboration with government entities.
Today, Dr. Ostrom has good company. On the Commons, a U.S.-based non profit, publishes a frequent blog on “commons heroes” — people and organizations proving that shared resources can stay public and be governed by ordinary folk. Maude Barlow on Our Water Commons, describes 10 visionary principles to manage water as a commons.
“A commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource in a collective manner,” writes David Bollier of On the Commons, “with a special regard for equitable access, use and sustainability. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise.”
The prize to Dr. Ostrom couldn’t be more timely. With the biggest commons of them all — our atmosphere — painfully mismanaged, Ostrom’s work injects hope that we can and must manage our commons better. The commons is rising.