Elinor Ostrom’s Essential Lessons for Collective Action: Excerpt

July 16, 2021

bookcoverThe Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom

by Erik Nordman

Published by Island Press


In the 1970s, the accepted environmental thinking was that overpopulation was destroying the earth. Prominent economists and environmentalists agreed that the only way to stem the tide was to impose restrictions on how we used resources, such as lad, water, and fish, from either the free market or the government. This notion was upended by Elinor Ostrom, whose work to show that regular people could sustainably manage their community resources eventually won her the Nobel Prize. Ostrom’s revolutionary proposition fundamentally changed the way we think about environmental governance.

Excerpt from Chapter 6 – The Climate Commons (pages 105-109)

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina famously begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The cases of LA groundwater, Maine lobsters, and València irrigation canals exemplify Tolstoy’s adage. These and other successful resource-using communities all created and enforced rules to sustain their common-pool resources. They all, in some way, exhibit Ostrom’s design principles—from clear boundaries to participatory rule making. Sustainable common-pool resources systems are all alike.

But every unsustainable commons is unsustainable in its own way. In Governing the Commons, Ostrom provided examples of communities that had depleted their common-pool resources. In each case, at least one (and often several) of the design principles were missing. Ostrom was careful to point out that commons will not always be managed sustainably. In fact, the successful long-term management of a commons is the exception rather than the rule.

Earth’s climate system has the attributes of a common-pool resource. The climate system’s limited ability to absorb greenhouse gas pollution makes it a depletable resource. It is difficult, however, to prevent cars and factories from emitting those greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide in particular has the unusual property of staying in the atmosphere for a long time. That accumulating concentration of greenhouse gases traps heat and changes weather patterns.

The list of climate change impacts happening now is long and ever growing. Fires rage in the American West and in Australia. Arctic sea ice melts, and glaciers retreat. Cities from Boston to Miami are inundated as the oceans rise. It is not an exaggeration that every single community now feels the effects of climate change. The latest US National Climate Assessment concluded,

“With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century—more than the current gross domestic product of many US states.

It’s no wonder that young people like Greta Thunberg are demanding climate action. This is the world they are inheriting.

The future has a habit of becoming the present. Predictions in the early 1990s for rising waters, fires, and heat waves seemed so far off. Yet, here they are. People all over the world, right now, are grappling with the damages from climate change. We can, however, try to limit the impact climate change has on human lives, but only if we work together.

If the climate system is a commons, then Ostrom’s design principles and other insights might help us govern it. The world’s latest effort to reign in greenhouse gases, the 2015 Paris Agreement, includes many of Ostrom’s design principles. However, the agreement is fragile and in danger of unraveling.

This chapter focuses on two key elements of Ostrom’s work: polycentric governance and enforcing expectations of behavior. It’s up to us, the global community, to ensure that we hold one another accountable for limiting climate-changing emissions and avoid a global tragedy.

Some historians regard the Manhattan Project as one of the greatest scientific achievements of the twentieth century. The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may be seen as the greatest scientific achievement of the twenty-first century. And these two endeavors could not be more different.

The US government assigned the Manhattan Project’s scientists a very particular problem: build a nuclear bomb so the Allies could win World War II. This top-down approach worked. The scientists built the bomb in just a few years. But scientists rarely operate under such specific directives. It was also done in complete secrecy. This approach to scientific discovery is highly unusual.

More typically, scientists choose their own topics to investigate. A scientist might conduct an experiment on one particular aspect of our world. For example, one might study how teaching with digital technology affects learning in kindergartners or how a new fertilizer formulation affects plant growth. Scientists are also members of a community. They review each other’s papers before publication. They learn from one another about what works and what doesn’t. The scientists themselves set the rules about what is acceptable conduct. Scientists also compete for prestige—they want to be recognized for making breakthrough discoveries (and maybe win a Nobel Prize). They publish their findings in scientific journals, and their discoveries may be reported in the popular press. No central authority oversees the global scientific community. From the outside, it can appear rather chaotic. Somehow, scientific knowledge emerges from this mess.

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That “somehow” is what social scientist Michael Polanyi called the “republic of science. In the 1950s, Polanyi studied the process of scientific discovery. He found that this chaotic, messy approach to science is, in fact, the “secret sauce” that propels our understanding of the world around us. Polanyi called this grassroots approach “polycentricity”: a social system that has many centers of decision making, each acting somewhat independently but under a common set of guiding principles.

Climate change is incredibly complex. It involves not only atmospheric science but also oceanography, physics, economics, sociology, ecology—just about every scientific field. The day-to-day endeavor of climate science happening at universities, government labs, and think tanks around the world is very much in line with Polanyi’s concept of polycentricity in science. Each researcher, each laboratory, investigates a small piece of the climate change puzzle.

With all of these scientists publishing in specialized journals, how- ever, it can be hard to see the big picture. That’s where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) comes in. In 1988, the United Nations formed the IPCC to conduct and publish periodic assessments of climate science.  The IPCC does not, however, conduct the science itself. Unlike the leaders of the Manhattan Project, the IPCC does not directly tell scientists what to study. The purpose of these assessments is to describe what we know about Earth’s climate—and what we don’t know. The knowledge gaps identified by the IPCC can point scientists, and science funders, in a particular direction. The “intergovernmental” part of the IPCC’s name is significant. Although experts from various climate-related fields synthesize the science, the IPCC process is overseen by national governments. The governments must ultimately sign off on the summary of the scientists’ assessments. In that way, the IPCC does provide some structure to the process of doing climate science, perhaps more structure than Polanyi’s ideal of a “republic of science.”

“Nonetheless, in its actual functioning, it would certainly be appropriate I think to characterize the IPCC as working in a pretty polycentric manner,” Martin Mahoney wrote in an email to me. Mahony is a human geographer at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. “Different teams of scientists work fairly independently of each other, responding to what they find in the literature, and it all adds up to a consensus viewpoint on the state of things.”

Polycentricity became one of the cornerstones of the Ostroms’ “Bloomington School” of political economy. It also would turn out to be a critical tool for managing the global climate commons.

Erik Nordman

Dr. Erik Nordman is Professor of Natural Resources Management and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Grand Valley State University, Michigan, and an Affiliate Scholar at Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop. Nordman has written on a wide variety of environmental topics, from urban stormwater management and land preservation to renewable energy. His work has also appeared in mass-market publications such as Quartz, The Conversation, and Bridge (a Michigan public affairs magazine). Nordman holds an MS in forest ecosystem management and a PhD in natural resource policy and economics, both from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse University. He served as a Fulbright Scholar and visiting professor at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, 2012-13. His publications are available at: https://works.bepress.com/erik_nordman/.  

Tags: atmospheric commons, common pool resource, the commons