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Mainstream, VOL L, No 28, June 30, 2012

Elinor Ostrom: Her Thoughts and Legacy

Wednesday 4 July 2012




With the passing of Elinor Ostrom (August 7, 1933 - June 6, 2012), an intellectual life ends but not the philosophy of humanity which is likely to dominate the future generations in the years to come. She was a political scientist and won the Noble Prize in Economics (The Sveridges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences) in 2009. She was the first woman to receive the Noble Prize in Economics and belonged to the evolving rare group of intellectuals who came from the discipline of Politics and influenced the Economic Sciences; their work was recognised with the award of the Noble Prize. Herbert Simon is another member of this group.

Elinor Ostrom presented a socialistic dimension to the issues and problems confronting the environment. Her great and firm belief in the concept of local management of natural resources, decentralised economic governance and collective action provided a new dimension to the field of Environmental Economics.
She was a solution-creator. She had discovered the basic fact that natural resources were meant for the local communities. Hence their mana-gement should be in the hands of those who are its major stakeholders, the common people. She in due course concentrated upon to find the solution of those ecological problems which had their adverse impact upon the common people; for this purpose she devised the polycentric approach which laid emphasis upon the lower level of structure of community and group of people to act in a collective manner for the management of the resources with least interference from the external domain.
In her doctoral thesis in 1964 she concluded that ‘’the decentralised political decision-making system has also been capable of reaching satisfactory solutions through negotiation and of coordinating the efforts of formally independent public and private agencies”. This conclusion was a revolutionary step in the collective management of the resources which in the following years changed the approach of the policy-making models from shifting the focus from the state and private agencies to the bottom-level common men who became the centre of operational focus for the maintenance of sustainable development and management of local environment related problems.

This understanding of Elinor led to the development of the concept of collective action which brought her everlasting fame. Her collective action possessed much potential for solving the multiple local resource related problems. She observed that ‘’collective action occurs when more than one individual is required to contribute to an effort in order to achieve an outcome. People living in rural areas and using natural resources engage in collective action on a daily basis when they plant or harvest food together; use a common facility for marketing their products; maintain a local irrigation system or patrol a local forest to see that users are following rules; and meet to decide on rules related to all of the above.’’ Elinor was of the opinion that the role of the government and private agencies in this effort was not conducive for the attainment of the desired goals. ‘’Indeed, efforts by national governments to impose uniform rules on large stretches of land involving diverse ecological and sociological systems have frequently led to worsening natural resource conditions rather than improvements,’’ she said.

SHE had much belief upon the common men who were as intellectual and full of wisdom as the top decision-makers at the political and administrative levels were. Her belief and faith in the common men and women and the emphasis upon their collective power to manage their environment and natural resources are a path-breaking contribution to human thought.

In this reference one crucial question which she raised often, in order to voice concern over the decline of environment, was related to the erosion of human intelligence because it had disowned the importance of ecology and natural resources. She emphatically criticised this development by stating that ‘’in an era when human rationality is thought in terms of what involves almost super human capabilities in some domains, it is paradoxical that the human capacity for self-reflective thought and social artisanship is almost ignored’’.

Her prescription in this background addressed a major issue of contemporary world, climate change and global warming. She was convinced that neither the state or private efforts nor global endeavours can resolve such important issues; she prescribed a positive alternative to deal with it: “we need to recognise that while many of the effects of climate change are global, the causes of climate change operate at a much smaller scale. The familiar slogan ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’ hits right on a major dilemma facing all inhabitants of this planet. To solve climate change in the long run, the day-to-day activities of individuals, families, firms, communities, and governments at multiple levels—particularly those in the more developed world—will need to change substantially.’’ The social units as family, firms can play a decisive role. ‘’Decisions within a family as to what form of transportation to use for various purposes, how to insulate the home, and which investments to make for power consumption within the home all have small (but cumulatively important) effects on the global atmosphere. Similar decisions within firms are also important.” In one of the interviews last year she summed up the role of individual in the control of global warming. She stated that ‘’when individuals walk a distance rather than driving it, they produce better health for themselves. At the same time that they reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that they are generating. There are benefits for the individual and small benefits for the globe.’’

Man is not concerned about nature because consumerism and individual identity are accorded more importance in the prevailing milieu. Elinor is great because she proposes a new direction to the political economy and Environmental Economics, by making it more socialistic, more humane, more decentralised, less exploitative and more concerned about nature and its resources.

In these simple philosophical explanations she creates a legacy for ages. She will survive in the human thoughts because in times to come, human civilisation will return to her to find out the solutions to the persistent ecological and climate problems.

Dr Vivek Kumar Srivastava is the Vice-Chairman, CSSP, Kanpur. He can be contacted at vpy1000@

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