An inspiration to green thinking, the political economist Elinor Ostrom’s work is dedicated to understanding how to manage resources and institutions democratically. In studying real-world alternatives to state control and organisation via the market, she urges us to expand the notion of what democracy means.
If we want to avert catastrophic climate change, who should act first: governments, corporations, or individual consumers? Does it make sense to move forward with emissions cuts if others do not also make haste? How best to encourage the healthy circulation of information with so many threats looming large, from “fake news” and the decline of professional journalism to state and corporate censorship and the threat to privacy posed by surveillance capitalism? How best to unite Europe? Should we transfer more power to the federal level or be flexible and accept more opt-outs, be this a necessary evil or an unwelcome blessing? In facing such questions, central to the political skirmish of our times, there is much to be learnt from Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012).
In 2009, the American scholar was famously the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”. Elinor, together with her husband, Vincent Ostrom, one of the central figures of new institutionalism, would describe herself as a “political economist”. As Derek Wall, the author who helped establish Ostrom as a green thinker, points out in Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals, political economy as practised by Ostrom differs from the usual understanding of the term. Rather than studying economic growth, monetary policy, or state budgets, she focused on how shepherds in a Swiss village protected their grazing lands, or how villagers on the Turkish coast resolved their fishing conflicts. (This is not about scale – Ostrom was also interested in global commons, such as the climate or the internet.)
A distinctive feature of Ostrom’s scholarship was uncompromising empiricism. What is true in practice should not be declared impossible by theory, she claimed. When she started researching the commons, the dominant theory was that commons are doomed to fail. Humans are intrinsically egoistic, driven by self-interest even at the expense of others. If cheating goes unpunished, they are certain to cheat.
To ensure compliance, one needs either the fear of punishment (state control) or the promise of profit (market incentives). And yet, as Ostrom noticed, there were numerous cases of commons that worked and were sustained over long periods of time. How was it possible?
By studying dozens of communities built around different commons, Ostrom revealed a set of eight (provisional) rules that were in place in most cases of successful commons and absent where efforts failed. Humans are indeed egoistic, but they can also communicate, negotiate, build trust – and, most importantly, learn from their mistakes. Commons can be subject to “social dilemmas”, but they are not condemned by them. Ignoring the risk of free riding when designing a policy or an institution would be myopic, but neglecting the potential for cooperation could be even more disastrous in the long run. Several decades of reforms based on simplistic assumptions about people as “rational actors” who only care for themselves have left us with institutions that are anything but rational.
The climate, the future of Europe, and the digital world are some of the central topics for green politics today. Both in their consequences and dynamics, they are in different ways dilemmas for and about democracy. Where Ostrom’s approach may be most useful is in offering ways of thinking that can help solve them, collectively.
In the realm of climate policy, Ostrom offered a polycentric approach. Polycentrism is a form of society that is not dependent on unity of power for its coherence. There are many “units”, autonomous, but taking others into account, joined by relations of cooperation, competition, conflict, and conflict resolution. When compared to its opposite, monocentric hierarchy, polycentric systems may seem a bit “messy”. According to Ostrom, however, such messy structures are better suited for public utilities, democratic legal orders, and the production of scientific knowledge.
What does this mean for climate policy-making? Coping with the climate crisis is not an either-or situation: either governments or individuals, either companies or consumers, either a global deal or mushrooming urban-level experiments. Any global solution needs to be backed by changes in local policies and individual behaviour; any local or national change needs to be embedded in global cooperation to prevent “leakage”.
Her research on successful commons led Ostrom to suggest an important point: that the focus should be not on the costs but the shared benefits of transition at any given level. For a household, going greener can mean lower heating bills; for a city, cleaner air and healthier people; for a nation-state, lower dependence on energy imports and an impulse for innovation; for the European Union, an opportunity to reinvent its regional cohesion policy and further integration between its members. Far from distractions, such collateral gains are at the heart of making climate policies feasible – and more democratic. Otherwise, climate transition would be construed simply in terms of costs and the apparent inaction of “free riders” could thwart any incentive for change.
Polycentric systems are also more flexible and thus better able to adapt to changing circumstances. They have been at the core of American federalism. And although, as Ostrom herself repeatedly warned, designing sustainable institutions is more about attuning to the context at hand than imitating what has worked elsewhere, the idea of polycentrism can also help us illuminate – and better appreciate – the European experience of integration.
Once seen as the cornerstone of democracy in a networked world, today the internet is more often perceived as jeopardising the democratic process.
Ostrom’s approach can be applied to knowledge and information, central challenges for democracies today. Conclusions are not as clear as for climate policy, but the analytical frameworks created to make sense of natural commons and polycentric systems provide a fresh perspective. Knowledge as a commons is, writes Ostrom in a text co-authored with Charlotte Hess, prone to the very same threats as natural commons: commodification and enclosure, pollution and degradation, as well as unsustainability.
It is, moreover, vulnerable to what they call the “tragedy of anti-commons”, the yoke of excessive intellectual property rights. Since the 1990s, the internet discourse has shifted remarkably. Once seen as the cornerstone of democracy in a networked world, today the internet is more often perceived as jeopardising the democratic process. For Ostrom, however, the digital commons may be the democratic alternative to monocentric hierarchies (what we now call surveillance capitalism). Digital commons need to be well designed and properly protected, with good attention to detail. There is no ready-made solution. One hint, though, seems obvious: better to institute a workable system of conflict resolution than seek to resolve all conflicts with one set of rules.
For Ostrom, commons are no silver bullet. In some cases, the state or the market may indeed be more fit for purpose. Moreover, the outcome of commons may be good or bad, sustainable or unsustainable. But all of us who believe that the renewal of democracy starts with the way we organise labour and economic activity will find in her research something more precious than uplifting stories. We will find a set of tools to understand how commons can work and why they sometimes fail.