Trapped in a Dilemma? Ask Elinor.

Are rational individuals hopelessly trapped in dilemmas? For those of us whose gut says, “Yes,” it is liberating to know that Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science, drew the opposite conclusion.  Her life’s work of research has led to a roadmap for resolving many apparently hopeless dilemmas, especially those that involve management of forests and other “common pool resources.”

Elinor Ostrom (Credit: John Sommers II/Reuters)

You can hear Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom speak at Forest Day 3.

Ostrom’s work challenges revered canons, such as The Tragedy of the Commons, which assumes that to avoid over-exploitation; common goods must be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Her studies of “common pool resources” such as fish stocks, pastures, woods, and lakes have found that resource users can be the best managers.  They frequently develop sophisticated systems of decision-making and rule enforcement.

Her studies of forests around the world show that the most sustainable are monitored by forest users themselves, not governments.  Other research delves into trade-offs and synergies between the level of carbon storage and livelihoods.  It has found that larger forests are more effective at enhancing both, especially when there are local groups with strong rule-making authority.

Ostrom’s work marries behavioral theory of the individual with an understanding of complex systems and institutional analysis and development, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful resource management.

Perhaps chief among them, especially on a “micro institutional” basis, is the development of trust.  When it comes to individual learning and norm adoption, Ostrom says, “If there is a five-letter word that I would like to repeat and repeat and repeat: Trust.”  In addition, she has found that resources that are in good condition around the world have users with long-term interests who invest in monitoring and building those resources. “This is a big lesson,” Ostrom said in her Nobel acceptance speech.  “Unfortunately, many policy officials haven’t absorbed the lesson yet.”

Ostrom insists that “We must learn how to deal with complexity rather than just rejecting it.”  Her work models an approach to do so, and applies that approach to one of the world’s most complex and urgent problems: the need to reduce carbon emissions and sequester forest carbon.

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