Challenging conventional green wisdom | Global Ideas | DW | 03.07.2012
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Global Ideas

Challenging conventional green wisdom

The late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom wasn't a proponent of global climate talks. Instead, she argued in her trailblazing commons work that people can and do work together locally to manage shared resources sustainably.

Sheep graze on a meadow

Grazing sheep - an example of how shared resources are fast depleted

Imagine a lush meadow on the edge of a village where all farmers let their livestock graze together. The land belongs to them equally. Such shared resources that are considered public domain are called “commons.” They’re free to use for all.

From forests to medicinal plants, groundwater and fish stocks, commons are diverse but increasingly under threat. That’s because the users of these commonly pooled resources are often thinking about gaining an advantage for themselves. So, each of the savvy farmers gradually raise the size of their herds. Soon, the cattle outstrip the meadow and the grass begins to die from overgrazing.

Political scientist Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom's works offer many lessons for current global climate talks

One of the greatest researchers of this phenomenon of resource over-use was political economist Elinor Ostrom who died earlier this year. Her views on global commons fueled vigorous debates in scientific and civil society circles.

In 2009, Los Angeles-born Ostrom became the first and only woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her analyses of how individuals and communities can often manage common resources – ranging from irrigation and fisheries to information systems – as well as or better than states or companies.

Her theories have also played an influential role in shaping current debates on climate change, the biggest of all the commons problems.

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

To gauge Ostrom’s enduring impact on environment debates one needs to go back to the image of cattle grazing on a lush meadow. In 1968, ecologist Garret Hardin published an influential essay that sowed the image of the overgrazed meadow as a symbol for the exploitation of resources in the minds of entire generations of social scientists and economists.

Called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” the article touched on overfishing, logging to littering as proof for the rapacious overuse of resources. "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all,” wrote Hardin, pointing to natural human behavioral patterns as the reason for that exploitation, labeling people as ruthlessly selfish.

Not only a tragedy

But in contrast to many fellow scientists, Elinor Ostrom refused to fully accept Hardin’s bleak assessment. Without denying the alarming rise in illegal logging or overfishing, she instead countered with a series of positive examples from around the world.

Solar panels on a roof in Germany

Ostrom believed private initatives, like these solar panels on a home, were more important to climate protection than international negotiations

She pointed out how farmers in Nepal had successfully shared scarce water resources for hundreds of years, and how farmers in Japan, too, had long collectively cultivated public fields, harvesting the crops together and dividing the bounty evenly among themselves.

“Instead of accepting that humans who share common resources are caught in a hopeless situation that they can’t escape, I want to show that the ability of those people to free themselves from a dilemma depends heavily upon the circumstances,” wrote Ostrom in one of her many books.

Ostrom insisted that humans weren’t necessarily rushing headlong into self-destruction by being blindly egotistical, but rather they are more than capable to communicate with each other, negotiate rules and ensure that they are adhered to. In that sense, she argued, the commons were by no means doomed to tragedy. In other words, Ostrom placed her trust in humans’ ability to discern and their capacity for collective action.

Climate change the 'greatest dilemma'

Yet despite Ostrom’s optimism, the threat of climate change continues to grow. The atmosphere is a common resource that everyone shares. It could be saved from damage if everyone reduced their emissions. Yet private and national interests continue to win out over environmental ones in dealing with the valuable resource. “Climate change is likely the biggest dilemma that humanity has ever consciously faced,” Ostrom admitted.

The Nobel Prize winner’s advice was to prove her theory right on the local level, by showing that small, cohesive communities can successfully cooperate with each other. Regulating the use of global commons presents a much greater challenge than the one faced on a local or regional level. But waiting for humanity to pool forces and see itself as one, global community to save the atmosphere is also unrealistic.

An urban garden in Cologne

Urban gardens allow people to come together and sustainably cultivate a common resource

In one of her more influential papers, Ostrom argued that waiting for a worldwide solution could end up in true tragedy. “In light of the now decades-long failure of negotiations to come up with an efficient, fair and enforceable agreement on global emissions reductions, further stalling could lead to a tragic development that we can no longer put an end to,” she said.

Learning and experimenting

Instead of waiting for international negotiators to act, said Ostrom, it is time for regions, companies and communities to take matters into their own hands. She trusted them to first recognize the downsides of overusing the atmosphere and then formulate rules – within their context – for a climate-friendlier lifestyle.

That doesn’t mean that a global climate treaty isn’t necessary, Ostrom said. But, she insisted, climate protection measures should follow simultaneously on various levels, kickstarting a “process of experimentation and learning.”

Ostrom passed away in January this year. But her theories are as relevant as ever. Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, is one of several scientists who have followed Ostrom’s line of argument.

In a paper titled “Who does the atmosphere belong to?,” Edenhofer underscores the importance of climate protection on local and regional levels. On a practical level, many already follow that logic: whether it’s self-administered citizens’ solar panels, urban gardens that supply local produce, or taking generating public energy supply into their own hands, an increasing number of individuals and communities across the world are working collectively and raising awareness about the value of common pooled resources.

Brian Davey, who specializes in commons theory, has launched urban gardening initiatives as a way to practice sustainability. He says he sees a “great idea that can motivate people to cooperate with each other again and share common resources.” As Elinor Ostrom reminds us, though, the trick is to remind people of their ability to do so.

Author: Eva Mahnke /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar