Nobel Winner Illuminates a New Path for the Future

ostromFor the first time in its history, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the annual million-dollar-plus Nobel prize for economics to a woman. She is 76-year-old Elinor Ostrom (photo at right), a rather obscure college professor who writes books about managing shared resources. The boo birds who scoffed at President Obama’s peace prize must find this award equally baffling.

Ostrom has labored far from the limelight, studying topics that do not usually attract headlines or television cameras. A native Californian who grew up through the lean years following the Great Depression, she has devoted her career to examining the interaction of people and natural resources.

What she found is encouraging. She concludes that people who use a common resource can manage it wisely without outside supervision. They don’t need a gestapo-like government or a heavy handed corporation to keep them in line, after all.

In awarding her the economics prize for 2009, the academy stated:

Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories.

Before you yawn and rub your eyes, consider the implications of this conclusion. As governments become ever more inefficient and exploitative, as the global financial system’s inherent corruption threatens catastrophic collapse, as resources become ever scarcer and as Big Business becomes ever more rapacious, mankind will inevitably have to find a new way forward. I don’t think any responsible observer would argue that existing institutions are working. For reasons too numerous to list, the end, as they say, could be near.

At least, the end of governance as we know it. But if Ostrom is right, and I think she is, civilization is not doomed. From the ashes of disaster, the phoenix of self-management could emerge, as a chastened populace is forced to fend for themselves. And if I am reading Ostrom’s findings correctly, they will likely do a whole lot better than the people running things today.