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Don’t be discouraged, says Elinor Ostrom

Posted on the February 26th, 2010

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom became the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. Ostrom received the great honor because she took a master scientist’s interest in situations such as this one:

…consider the management of grasslands in the interior of Asia. Scientists have studied satellite images of Mongolia and neighboring areas in China and Russia, where livestock has been feeding on large grassland areas for centuries. Historically, the region was dominated by nomads, who moved their herds on a seasonal basis.

In Mongolia, these traditions were largely intact in the mid-1990s, while neighboring areas in China and Russia – with closely similar initial conditions – had been exposed to radically different governance regimes. There, central government imposed state-owned agricultural collectives, where most users settled permanently. As a result, the land was heavily degraded in both China and Russia.

And this one:

. ..user-management of local resources has been more successful than management by outsiders. A striking case is that of irrigation systems in Nepal, where locally managed irrigation systems have successfully allocated water between users for a long time. However, the dams – built from stone, mud and trees – have often been primitive and small.

In several places, the Nepalese government, with assistance from foreign donors, has therefore built modern dams of concrete and steel. Despite flawless engineering, many of these projects have ended in failure.

These two examples are from the Nobel Foundation’s press release describing the unique value of Ostrom’s life work. Over several decades, the economist gathered information that illuminated the complexities and successes of problem solving related to shared resources, according to the release.

In particular, Ostrom challenged the conventional wisdom that the only solution to public problems is either to turn them over to the state to manage or hand them off to privatization. There’s a third way that often can trump both of these, according to Ostrom — let the users themselves create and run their own systems at a local level.

What’s more, the Nobel release noted, Ostrom’s work also has shown that there is a much greater willingness of individuals to participate in their own shared systems — for little or minor reward — than is commonly believed.

This month in the online edition of The Solutions Journal, Ostrom brings this same perspective to the problem of global warming. In the aftermath of the disappointment of Copenhagen 2009, the economist says it is important to recognize that climate change problems can be solved in other ways:

Acknowledging the complexity of global warming, as well as the relatively recent agreement among scientists about the human causes of climate change, leads to the recognition that waiting for effective policies to be established at the global level is unreasonable.

Instead, it would be better to self-consciously adopt a multi-scale approach to the problem of climate change, starting at the local level. This approach serves to maximize the benefits at varying levels and encourages experimentation and learning from diverse policies…

Read the full article here.

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