We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.
Elinor Ostrom became the first and, so far, the only woman to win a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009. The pedantic remind me that there isn’t really a Nobel in economics; to be exact, she won the Swedish National Bank's Prize for economics in memory of Alfred Nobel.
In fact, while economics was in the title, perhaps it might be better to think of her winning a prize in Ecology. Elinor, an American from California who died in 2012, was a dedicated ecologist, driven by a passion to protect and conserve our beautiful planet.
Elinor won the prize for her work on commons and sustainability. A commons is a collectively owned area of property such as grazing land for cattle or sheep, or a forest or fishery.
In 1968 the biologist Garrett Hardin published his famous essay ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. He argued that resources and land owned as commons would inevitably be wrecked. For example, over grazing by cattle would lead to soil erosion and the land would be destroyed.
Elinor, who met Garrett Hardin when he lectured at the Bloomington campus of Indiana University where she worked, had different ideas. She knew that far from being tragic, commons often worked well.
She dedicated her life to studying real world commons and looking at how to conserve them. Hardin, whom she had around for dinner and fed hamburgers, argued that unless the commons were taken over by the government or privatised, they would be destroyed. She instead argued that local people collectively owning a resource tend to conserve it.
Those people know that unless they cooperate, for example by agreeing to ration out how many cattle each commoner could graze, they would not have a sustainable future.
Elinor found that local communities were often more knowledgeable about ecology than government officials. She also felt that privatising resources might fail too, with short term profit being more important than long term sustainability. She believed that local knowledge wasn’t everything: letting local people know about the most up to date research from scientific ecologists was vital too.
A meaningful life
She was a member of the Ecological Society of America, arguing that economists had to be aware of ecological science to promote real prosperity. She was a true green, long before the term was used or Green parties or groups like Friends of the Earth had been created.
For example, she argued that to conserve the environment, we need to consume less and rethink our lifestyles. She was proud that as a child in the 1930s and 40s she helped her mother grow food and can peaches, to get through the economic depression and war years.
She noted: "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."
She also argued that politics tended to be too short term, and was an advocate of the Seven Generation Rule, noting that indigenous peoples in North America promoted the idea of thinking of future generations.
Wisdom of local people
However, her radical green commitments were based not merely on good sentiments, but on sound science. She was concerned with local environments, but also global issues such as climate change and air pollution.
She argued that to solve such problems we need to take notice of both social and natural sciences. Her work on the commons and economics was based on the economics of cooperation. She noted that human beings are neither intrinsically selfish nor intrinsically sharing. Instead, if the right rules and practices were put in place, cooperation and conservation could be encouraged.
Her vision was to use detailed research to try and help us make the best of ourselves. Her research involved listening and learning from the grassroots, finding out the wisdom of local people.
Despite her commitment to science and research, she was passionately committed to environmental issues, practical peace making and grassroots democracy. But her values were based not on slogans and utopian wishes, but dogged practical work. On the day she died of pancreatic cancer, on 12th June, 2012, she was still helping her students and promoting her ecological solutions.
It is difficult to sum up all her contributions, her approach was both far reaching and radical, but her Nobel win is a reminder that perhaps we need an Ecology prize and that other economists might learn a greener approach from Elinor’s philosophy.
Derek Wall is International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales (job sharing with Jessica Northey) and a parish councillor in Berkshire. His new book, Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals is due to be published by Pluto this October.