Photo by Chris Meyer / Indiana University
Fran Korten: When you first learned that you had won the Nobel Prize in Economics, were you surprised?
Elinor Ostrom: Yes. It was quite surprising. I was both happy and relieved.
Fran: Why relieved?
Elinor: Well, relieved in that I was doing a bunch of research through the years that many people thought was very radical and people didn’t like. As a person who does interdisciplinary work, I didn’t fit anywhere. I was relieved that, after all these years of struggle, someone really thought it did add up. That’s very nice.
And it’s very nice for the team that I’ve been a part of here at the Workshop. We have had a different style of organizing. It is an interdisciplinary center—we have graduate students, visiting scholars, and faculty working together. I never would have won the Nobel but for being a part of that enterprise.
Fran: It’s interesting that your research is about people learning to cooperate. And your Workshop at the university is also organized on principles of cooperation.
Elinor: I have a new book coming out in May entitled Working Together, written with Amy Poteete and Marco Janssen. It is on collective actions in the commons. What we’re talking about is how people work together. We’ve used an immense array of different methods to look at this question—case studies, including my own dissertation and Amy’s work, modeling, experiments, large-scale statistical work. We show how people use multiple methods to work together.
Fran: But what about the “free-rider” problem where some people abide by the rules and some people don’t? Won’t the whole thing fall apart?
Elinor: Well if the people don’t communicate and get some shared norms and rules, that’s right, you’ll have that problem. But if they get together and say, “Hey folks, this is a project that we’re all going to have to contribute to. Now, let’s figure it out,” they can make it work. For example, if it’s a community garden, they might say, “Do we agree every Saturday morning we’re all going to go down to the community garden, and we’re going to take roll and we’re going to put the roll up on a bulletin board?” A lot of communities have figured out subtle ways of making everyone contribute, because if they don’t, those people are noticeable.
Fran: So public shaming and public honoring are one key to managing the commons?
Elinor: Shaming and honoring are very important. We don’t have as much of an understanding of that. There are scholars who understand that, but that’s not been part of our accepted way of thinking about collective action.
Fran: Do you have a favorite example of where people have been able to self-organize to manage property in common?
Elinor: One that I read early on that just unglued me because I wasn’t expecting it was the work of Robert Netting, an anthropologist who had been studying the alpine commons for a very long time. He studied Swiss peasants and then studied in Africa too. He was quite disturbed that people were saying that Africans were primitive because they used common property so frequently and they didn’t know about the benefits of private property. The implication was we’ve got to impose private property rules on them. Netting said, “Are the Swiss peasants stupid? They use common property also.”
Let’s think about this a bit. In the valleys, they use private property, while up in the alpine areas, they use common property. So the same people know about private property and common property, but they choose to use common property for the alpine areas. Why? Well, the alpine areas are what Netting calls “spotty.” The rainfall is high in one section one year, and the snow is great, and it’s rich. But the other parts of the area are dry. Now if you put fences up for private property, then Smith’s got great grass one year he can’t even use it all and Brown doesn’t have any. So, Netting argued, there are places where it makes sense to have an open pasture rather than a closed one. Then he gives you a very good idea of the wide diversity of the particular rules that people have used for managing that common land.
Fran: Why were Netting’s findings so surprising to you?
Elinor: I had grown up thinking that land was something that would always move to private property. I had done my dissertation on groundwater in California, so I was familiar with the management of water as a commons. But when I read Netting, I realized that when there are “spotty” land environments, it really doesn’t make sense to put up fences and have small private plots.
Fran: If you were to have a sit-down session with someone with a big influence on natural resources policy say Robert Zoellick, head of the World Bank, or Ken Salazar, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, what would be your advice?
Elinor: No panaceas! We tend to want simple formulas. We have two main prescriptions: privatize the resource or make it state property with uniform rules. But sometimes the people who are living on the resource are in the best position to figure out how to manage it as a commons.
Fran: Do you have a message for the general public?
Elinor: We need to get people away from the notion that you have to have a fancy car and a huge house. Some of the homes that have been built in the last 10 years just appall me. Why do humans need huge homes? I was born poor and I didn’t know you bought clothes at anything but the Goodwill until I went to college. 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.
Fran: Let’s look ahead 20 years. What would you hope that the world will understand about managing common property systems?
Elinor: What we need is a broader sense of what we call “social ecological systems.” We need to look at the biological side and the social side with one framework rather than 30 different languages. That is big, but I now have some of my colleagues very interested. Some of them are young, and what I find encouraging is that with a bunch of us working together, I can see us moving ahead in the next 20 years or so. Twenty years from now, at 96, I probably won’t be as active.