After a dreadful PR year for both privatization and government intervention, perhaps we should have expected a renewed enthusiasm for the commons. And that’s just what we got yesterday morning, straight out of Oslo. It’s too bad that University of Indiana political science Professor Elinor Ostrom had to win both the first Nobel Prize in Economics ever awarded to a woman as well as the first pendant the committee handed out after sullying its credibility by awarding President Obama the Peace Prize before he even pardons his first turkey. But no matter! If we can spin Obama’s win as a “call to action,” why not do the same with Ostrom’s? Pessimism (fatalism) aside, I’m all for the twenty-teens being the decade of disappearing nuclear warheads and retreating neoliberal resource management.
Let’s hear from the Laureate herself!
An excerpt form the introduction to her 1990 book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, giving us a good sense where she’s coming from:
The issue of how best to govern natural resources used by many individuals in common are no more settled in academia than in the world of politics. Some scholarly articles about the “tragedy of the commons” recommend that “the state” control most natural resources to prevent their destruction; others recommend that privatizing those resources will resolve the problem. What one can observe in the world, however, is that neither the state nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems. Further, communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time.
Even better is a nifty section later in the book with a felicitous heading: “Policies based on metaphors can be harmful.” It reminded me of something Berkeley geographer Nathan Sayre pointed out in one of his podcasted lectures. Garrett Hardin, in his essay “Ethical Implications of Carrying Capacity,” employs the following policy-shaping metaphor:
If too many head of deer are allowed in the pasture they may overgraze it to such an extent that the ground is laid bare, producing soil erosion followed by less plant growth in subsequent years.
A dire fate, to be sure–if deer were grazers and not browsers. Metaphors not only tend to bulldoze the particulars of context and contingency, they also can lie.
So what says Ostrom?
Relying on metaphors as the foundation for policy advice can lead to results substantially different from those presumed to be likely. Nationalizing the ownership of forests in Third World countries, for example, has been advocated on the grounds that local villagers cannot manage forests so as to sustain their productivity and their value in reducing soil erosion. In countries where small villages had owned and regulated their local communal forests for generations, nationalization meant expropriations. In such localities, villagers had earlier exercised considerable restraint over the rate and manner of harvesting forest products. In some of these countries, national agencies issued elaborate regulations concerning the use of forests, but were unable to employ sufficient numbers of foresters to enforce those regulations. The foresters who were employed were paid such low salaries that accepting bribes became a common means of supplementing their income. The consequence was that nationalization created open-access resources where limited-access common-property resources had previously existed.
A recent paper in PNAS by Ashwini Chhatre (Illinois) and Arun Agrawal (Michigan), with Ostrom as editor, bears this out. To all the old familiar reasons to get excited about local management of forests and woodlands, they add a new one: bigger carbon sinks. Check it out here.