The world lost a brave, creative mind when Elinor Ostrom died this morning from cancer. She was 78, a professor at Indiana University, and the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences, in 2009. Without her pioneering work and global outreach, it’s doubtful that the commons would have survived the “tragedy of the commons” myth that Garrett Hardin inflicted on it in 1968. Nor would the commons have gone on to become a respected paradigm of governance, let alone an orienting framework for the current surge of commons policy advocacy and social activism.
In the 1970s, economics was quickly veering into a kind of religious fundamentalism. It was a discipline obsessed with “rational individualism,” private property rights and markets even though the universe of meaningful human activity is much broader and complex. Lin Ostrom pioneered a different, more humanistic way of thinking about “the economy” and resource management. She originally focused on property rights and “common-pool resources,” collective resources over which no one has private property rights or exclusive control, such as fishers, grazing lands and groundwater. This work later evolved into a broader study of the commons as a rich, cross-cultural socio-ecological paradigm. Working within the social sciences, Ostrom proceeded to build a new school of thought within the standard economic narrative while extending it in vital ways.
As important, Ostrom built a global network of colleagues and a vast literature that explores how people can actually cooperate in managing resources. At Indiana University, she and her husband, political scientist Vincent Ostrom, in 1973 founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, a crucible for much seminal thinking about the commons. Internationally, she helped start the International Association for the Study of the Commons, an academic network whose hundreds of members have developed a rich literature documenting howordinary people create fair rules and institutions for managing shared resources in sustainable ways. Much of this literature can be found at the Digital Library of the Commons, which is affiliated with the Workshop at Indiana University.