Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Elinor Ostrom died yesterday after a battle with cancer. The last time I heard her speak (less than a year ago), a student asked her something like, “Given all the political barriers to dealing with climate change, do you think we adequately address the problem?” Her response was this simple: “We can, so we must.” After a pause, she then went on to describe in some detail what needed to be done in what seemed a to-do list for the ages. In this interaction, as in her her life, she focused on the possibilities, not the challenges they presented, and then went to work.
When she graduated as an undergraduate in 1954 from UCLA, it was not an easy thing for a woman to aspire to academia. She began her career and a personnel manager, and later returned to UCLA for a masters degree and then a PhD. She started her career at Indiana University, and ultimately succeed in earning tremendous respect within her field of study. Ultimately, she developed a way of thinking that served--and will continue to serve--as the foundation for scholarly agendas for thousands of other academics. Her life’s work ultimately earned her a Nobel prize.
Her best known work focuses on the commons. This work is rooted in a few optimistic ideas: ordinary people can overcome extraordinary problems; those that seem uneducated and powerless are often extremely clever and capable; selfishness often loses out to the common good; and human culture can be good at policing itself. The work she has completed and inspired shows that these optimistic ideas often empirically play out in a diverse range of resources, from fisheries to the radio spectrum. Furthermore, this literature demonstrates that more success stories are within our grasp if society’s institutions are reshaped correctly. Her guidance has literally left a lasting mark on resource managers world-over and can and should be credited for successes that have kept food on many communities’ tables.
As someone who cares deeply about her ideas, I am not sure how the study of the commons will survive without the additional insights she had to offer or how the interdisciplinary community that furthers her work will manage without the rallying call from her powerful, yet folksy voice. However, this much I have learned from Lin: we can, so we must.
-- Brigham Daniels