Published on Sustainable Cities

Invictus: Elinor Ostrom’s Gift

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Elinor OstromAfter months of expectation and years of very hard (and in some cases, not hard enough) work towards the goal of sustainable development, heads of state and environmentalists alike are gathering at Rio+20 to determine what we’ve accomplished in the last two decades and how we’re going to pave the road that lies ahead.

Up until the day before departing for Rio, I approached this conference with a sense of foreboding. Like many, I thought Rio+20 would lead to disappointment and heart-break for environmentalists; on the one hand because we’d find out we’re farther behind than we expect on our road towards sustainable development, and on the other, because we’d realize that our representatives are unwilling to compromise to the degree that our planet needs to survive. Then, on June 12th, I changed my mind.

Elinor Ostrom, the only woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, passed away that day. While many might remember Professor Ostrom for her highly respected work on institutions and her contributions to the Socio-Ecological Systems framework, I will remember her for her vision, compassion and genuine commitment to contribute to a better world for future generations.

Professor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work on governance. Typically, conventional solutions to the problem of the commons involve centralized governmental regulation or resource privatization. However, Ostrom proposed a third approach: the design of resilient institutions, which are organized and governed by the resource users themselves.

Rather than proposing to privatize or have governments manage common pool resources (such as fisheries, water or forests), Ostrom empowered citizens to go beyond governing institutions and advocated for citizens to work collectively in managing their resources. In her view, the crux of the issue lies in determining a way in which “a group of principals who are in an interdependent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”

Although Ostrom accomplished the highest academic honors as a professor, what made her even more admirable is that her work was aimed at decision-makers, technical specialists, bureaucrats and resource users—not exclusively scholars. Her priority was not to propose novel theories, but to accomplish the effective management of common property resources. The best proof of this is her final publication.

On the day of her passing, Ostrom gave us a gift: a powerful note called Green from the Grassroots, which illustrates her life’s work in a nutshell. In her short commentary, Ostrom stresses the importance of Rio+20, emphasizing that our most limited resource is time and that we are hard-pressed to establish universal sustainable development goals that will allow us to confront modern-day challenges such as food security, waste management, urban planning and poverty eradication. As she clearly delineates in her note, our world is no longer in a position to dream about sustainability; we are now required to integrate it as the only way to develop going forward.

This message is her gift to us. She gives each and every one of us the power to make our dreams become a reality. Without understanding that every stakeholder (including you and me) has a hold on the common pool of resources that our planet offers, we will not be able to accomplish sustainable development. Without each of our individual efforts to organize, cooperate and trust each other to take responsibility for the risk our planet is in, we will not be able to accomplish sustainable development.

The fact that our governments are not taking the action that we know needs to be taken is no longer an acceptable excuse. In fact, it’s the worst one. Because, thanks in large-part to Elinor Ostrom, we know that global sustainability is a sum of the parts, that action at the local level ultimately adds up and that it doesn’t even matter if we have a global agreement if we don’t each assume our responsibility.

It is when—and only when—each individual citizen takes ownership over our global commons that we will truly see change. If our leaders are not taking the necessary steps, then we must remember Elinor telling us that we cannot rely on a single set of global policies to solve our complex problems—while at the same time push them to remember their constituencies. And if we need a little inspiration, we can always turn to city leaders who, in the absence of effective commitments at the national and regional levels, have taken action themselves, proving that there is a good reason why Professor Ostrom won that Nobel Prize.

Editor’s Note: The title of this blog derives from William Ernest Henley’s poem by the same title.

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons


Julianne Baker Gallegos

Junior Professional Associate

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