Opinion: In the face of a looming climate crisis, the late Elinor Ostrom gives me hope

By proving that humans can sustainably manage shared resources, this Nobel Prize–winning economist’s work shines light on a path that just might get us out of this mess.

6 min readFeb 5, 2020


Photos © iStockphoto.com/lanzaran

By Erik Nordman for Ensia | @ensiamedia | @ErikNordman

In December 2019, representatives of countries around the world will gather for COP 25, the 25th annual Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and negotiate how to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change. However, U.S. President Donald Trump has begun the process of withdrawing from the accord. Will U.S. disengagement be the agreement’s unraveling? Or is there a way to protect a shared resource like our atmosphere and climate even when some choose not to play along?

As an ardent follower of political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, I would like to suggest that we do indeed have hope — that Ostrom’s ideas could serve as a guiding light for avoiding a climate catastrophe even though not everyone is on board.

Shared Resource Surprise

Conventional wisdom related to environmental protection holds that we are trapped in what 20th-century ecologist Garrett Hardin famously called “the tragedy of the commons.” Commons, or common-pool resources, are resources that can be used by anyone but can easily be depleted. Hardin posited that all commons are eventually destroyed. After all, if people can take as much as they want and there is a limited supply, then the resource will soon disappear. Hardin wrote that there are two, and only two, ways to prevent the “tragedy”: privatize the resource or impose government regulations. People, he thought, are just plain unable to control themselves in a commons.

The “tragedy of the commons” was not based on evidence, however, and Ostrom was skeptical. So she went looking for proof — and what she found shocked everyone.

Ostrom and her colleagues carefully analyzed thousands of examples of common-pool resources from around the world. They found that, although some…




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