I was excited by Monday’s news that Elinor Ostrom has won the Nobel economics prize,* and not just because of the frightening peasant sweater she is wearing in the only photograph that appears to have been circulated to the press.
I was also excited because, as it happens, for weeks I have been trying to read some of her work. I feel that this almost qualifies me as a close personal friend. If we met, I’m sure that I would need only to say, “Hi Professor Ostrom, loved your article on forest governance!”, and she would immediately invite me into her inner circle and ask me to join them in getting high and debating the finer points of multi-variate research methods.**
Ostrom’s specialism, the management of common pool resources, is one of the key areas in environmental studies, so I thought I should find out about it. More importantly, I know that she questions Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” theory. And ever since the husband of a friend, who works for a central bank, told me that Hardin’s theory is a cornerstone of modern economics, I have wanted to prove him wrong (deciding not to let the fact that this man has a PhD in economics sway me from my mission).
Tragedy in Utah
In 1968, Hardin published an article in Science in which he evoked an old scenario about people grazing cattle on a piece of commons land. This land can support a certain number of cows without the grass being eaten away. It’s a sustainable system – assuming that each herdsman doesn’t sneakily add another cow. If he does, he can earn a bit more money. And the gains to him from doing that are greater than the collective losses that everyone will feel as a result of the land having to be shared by a bigger group of cattle.
So, said Hardin, “the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd”. What a short-sighted idiot, you might think! Well, idiot or not, each herdsman is compelled to maximize his yield from the same piece of land, so they all put too many cows on it, the commons becomes overgrazed – and that, says Hardin, is the tragedy of the commons (thanks to Gregory for introducing me to this theory!).
(The obvious answer is to build a large out-of-town Tesco on the site, which would not only prevent overgrazing but also provide the herdsman with a range of beef or soya-protein products at affordable prices.)
These days, most of the work on common pool resources has focused on the management of leisure centre swimming pools fisheries or forests. Are fishermen and forest dwellers driven to overexploit their resources, just like Hardin’s herdsmen? And if so, can it really be explained by greed and mistrust?
The importance of Ostrom’s many years of work, I understand, has been to find cases where people have been able to manage resources sustainably, and to identify the conditions necessary for that to happen. “Why did other economists miss this part of the picture?” asks Elizabeth Eaves in Forbes. ” ‘Economists didn’t pay attention to ethnography,’ [economist Nancy] Folbre says. ‘Why go out in the field when you have a nice theory?’ ”.
The award is being seen as quite timely in an age of collapsed fish stocks, deforestation and all that. This issue is also relevant to grazing and pastoralism, as in the original example used by Hardin. A few weeks ago the Observer ran a piece about nomadic herders in north Kenya who are being driven into settled camps by drought and death of their livestock: “What is happening is the slow death of an existence, with families attempting to cling stubbornly to a land where acacia scrub has been scorched to a spectral gray.”
I found the article unusually good because the journalist, Peter Beaumont, mentioned a change in global weather patterns and political marginalisation as factors. Very often, the plight of nomads like this is explained by “poor livestock management” and overpopulation, placing the blame at their own feet.
What Ostrom and others have done is to debunk this rather simplistic explanation. In fact, one of the tasks of the wider field of political ecology is to illuminate how quite well managed systems can be disturbed by outside factors such as aggressive policies to encourage nomadic herders to settle, or the granting of logging concessions. If we want to be cynical about it, some groups are quite happy for the theory that people cannot manage by themselves to become the accepted belief, because it then provides a rationale for privatisation, forced clearance of land and so on.
Although working for the UN has made me much more pragmatic than I used to be, I still have a tendency to embrace counter-theories like this without checking the facts. I want Hardin, game theory and their assumptions about human nature to be wrong, therefore I automatically believe anyone who says that they are. In the same way, I want to believe that the reason for pastoralists’ problems is not that they can’t manage the resources for themselves but that some nefarious outside force is trying to change them. I know this is Bad Science, so I set myself the challenge of doing some reading and deciding for myself.
But there’s one big problem, and it feels a bit rude to say this about a Nobel laureate: I find Ostrom’s work really boring. It’s all about systems and regimes and causal models, and whenever I try to read about it, my brain is forced into its default setting of thinking about which is the best biscuit in the world.*** To wit, let us look at some extracts from the Ostrom-edited book The Drama of the Commons:
(Pictures added to prevent my computer rejecting the photos as image files.)
I am sure that the work of Ostrom et al isn’t boring if you understand the context. The problem is that I am still trying to get my yellow belt in this stuff and she is at least a Fifth Dan. But that doesn’t help the fact that for now, I find the material somewhat inaccessible. Can someone commission a Ladybird version?
* Together with Oliver Williamson.
** This is just a scenario; I am no means implying that Elinor Ostrom is a stoner.
*** My once entrenched feelings on this subject have recently been rocked by the discovery of the Oreo.