Elinor Ostrom answers 12 questions

Elinor Ostrom is asked 12 questions in the German journal GAIA (4|2006). Arun Agrawal introdues Elinor “Lin” Ostrom in the journal as follows:

Few social scientists can lay claim to the kind of achievements for which Lin is famous: inventing and consolidating the commons as a whole new field of investigation, launching new institutions that shape the research careers of hundreds of social scientists, and influencing public policy in an entirely new direction in relation to natural resource governance. …The work that has brought her the acclaim and admiration of peers and the adulation of younger scholars has effectively countered widely accepted orthodoxies about the ineffectiveness of common property. Lin’s scholarly contributions are founded upon the bedrock of evidence from literally tens of thousands of studies, refutable propositions based in fundamental social science, and rock-solid, theoretically informed, rigorous empirical and experimental research. It would be no exaggeration to say that there is scarcely a political scientist better known within and outside the discipline.

A few of GAIA’s questions and Elinor Ostrom’s answers are below. Its great to discover that she thinks the work of the Resilience Alliance is exciting.

7. What field of research in environmental sciences – besides the one you are working in – do you consider most exciting?

The Resilience Alliance is, in my opinion, producing some of the most exciting contemporary research by bringing together centers throughout the world to study the resilience of ecological systems to natural- and human-induced disturbances.

8. Can you name any person or event that has had a particular influence on your commitment to environ- mental issues?

Before reading the work of Robert Netting in the early 1980s, I had no inkling it would ever be efficient to allocate land for human use using common property. I understood that water and fish existed in common-pool resources and required a variety of property-rights systems, but I thought land was a private good and needed private ownership to be allocated efficiently. Netting’s analysis was unnerving. He asked why Alpine farmers used private ownership to manage their valley farmlands, but the same farmers used forms of common property to manage Alpine meadows. His analysis demonstrated that forms of common property were more effective than private ownership when land had low productivity, when rainfall and other nutrients were spatially and temporally patchy, and when substantial economies of scale in building infrastructure existed. His in-depth evidence was substantial and the theoretical argument broadened my horizon tremendously. It blew my mind!

10. What knowledge about the environment would you like to pass on to young people?

Young people need to learn about the diversity of ecosystems and the diversity of institutional arrangements that humans have crafted to cope effectively with different settings and problems.

Humans have used a large set of rules in various combinations in the effort to match the specific characteristics of particular resource systems. Rules related to who can access, harvest from, manage, exclude others, and sell aspects of a resource system are the building blocks of resource use and protection situations. When systems fail, we need to use empirically warrantable diagnostic theories to analyze the sources of failure and which rules need to be changed (and how) to create a more sustainable future.

11. What are you reading at the moment?

I am enjoying reading Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Since I have studied reciprocity and fairness among humans in the experimental lab and in field settings, it is fascinating to read his discussion of these processes among chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys.

12. Which question – apart from the ones we raised – is the most important one?

What can each one of us do every day to improve our environment? If we think that the only answers to environmental problems are what “the” government undertakes, we face a real tragedy.

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