Native Americans, as well as many other indigenous communities around the world, have been praised ceaselessly for their spiritual connections to Mother Nature. Oddly, they have not been as readily commended for their skills at managing natural resources.
Thanks to Elinor Ostrom, a scholar, activist and field researcher who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009, indigenous communities may one day be looked to for solutions to some of the world's most pressing ecological problems.
Ostrum died on June 12, followed only a short while later by her husband, Vincent, but not before their work together brought a new understanding of and appreciation for the many complex methods human beings have used for centuries to create sustainable resource-use practices.
Ostrum, a political scientist by training, criticized long-held assumptions that top-down control is preferable to letting fishermen, hunters and farmers manage what she termed "common pool resources." By contrast, she showed that corporations aimed at profit or government agencies without deep ties to the land often do more harm than good.
In a valley such as ours, where commonly shared natural resources are a vital part of the economy, Ostrum's ideas are well worth noting. Who should we look to when seeking ways to regulate the shared use of our environmental resources?
Elinor Ostrum criticized in particular "The Tragedy of the Commons," an essay written by ecologist Garrett Hardin, first published in the journal Science in 1968. The essay cited historical sources to claim that herders using a commonly held field would, if left to their own devices, overuse and ultimately deplete the shared resource. The essay has been cited for decades in arguments in support of the privatization of once commonly used property.
Ostrum conducted field research around the world that showed the reverse to be true. For example, she found Turkish fishermen who had been drawing up coastal fishing maps and agreed-upon regulations in cafes for generations, and families in New Mexico and Nepal that had successfully managed communal water resources for agriculture, without the help of outside agencies.
Ostrum found that a government-engineered solution to irrigation challenges in one community was far less successful than one developed by farmers themselves.
Ostrum pointed out that open-ocean fishermen pose the greatest threat to fish populations because they work without the social controls that are a part of local communities.
"Trust is at the center of how people solve dilemmas," she said in one of her many lectures available on the Internet.
Ostrum's work inspired further research that she hoped would one day find a multitude of solutions to the threat of global warming, rather than relying solely on government institutions and private enterprise to save the day.
"We need to build enough diversity to cope with the diversity of the world—allow a multi-tiered system at multiple scales [instead of] a top-down panacea that is predicted to cure everything and instead kills it," she said. "The presumption is that it always has to be the state, the big guy with the gun, that needs to tell us what to do."
Ostrum also challenged a trend in economics that focuses on mathematical formulas, rather than analyzing data gathered from real-world practices. Although her work was only slowly accepted by the academic community, she succeeded in helping to establish several interdisciplinary institutions that use collaborations with scholars across academia, including ecologists, computer scientists and psychologists.
In a New York Times article this month, Ostrum's work was lauded by Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
"She would go and actually talk to Indonesian fisherman, or Maine lobstermen, and ask, 'How did you come to establish this limit on the fish catch? How did you deal with the fact that people might try to get around it?'" Folbre wrote. "Every successive cohort of economists is trained to put greater emphasis on the arsenal of mathematical and econometric expertise. That was just not what her work was about."