Elinor Ostrom’s Third Way to Sustainability

By Erik Schneider, Greening the Athletic Department Intern


You may have heard of the tragedy of the commons — the idea that public natural resources, such as water, air, pastures, or forests, will be depleted by people acting in their self interest. While the outcome seems dreary, there are solutions. Typically there have been two major responses to this problem: taxes and private property rights.

Indiana University’s late Nobel Prize-winning professor, Elinor Ostrom, worked tirelessly to uncover new solutions to this problem, which will help maintain the sustainability of our natural resources. Through a mix of historical research, fieldwork, and complex experimental studies in game theory, she discovered a third way to successfully manage resources — given the right situation, we can do it ourselves.

To be precise, those that utilize resources can use them sustainably, without government regulation or privatization, by developing their own rules, including monitoring and enforcement. These arrangements can only work with a high degree of communication and trust. The areas also should be closed to outsiders, have conflict resolution, and increasing sanctions for rule breaking.

Ostrom cites numerous examples where this type of situation has been successful, from Swiss pastures, to Los Angeles groundwater basins, and coastal fisheries around the world. With forests in Latin America, she found locally managed forests to be more sustainable than national forests. Each area is unique, however, so a one-size-fits-all approach will not typically be successful. 

So what can we learn from her work? For one, we don’t always need to rely on government or markets for sustainability. We can help foster partnerships from the bottom-up, and encourage community-building to enhance trust and communication. It also means that if you are utilizing a resource, whether it is your local lake, forest, dog park, or even the resource that is a clean apartment or dorm, you can work with those around you to keep this resource available far into the future.


One thought on “Elinor Ostrom’s Third Way to Sustainability

  1. Thanks for posting this is a succinct statement of the profound insights of Dr. Ostrom! When we step outside of ideologies and political posturing, there are human ways of figuring out what needs to be done to build consensus for protecting the commons. Indeed, there is a third way that does not depend upon government or markets, but the problem-solving abilities of regular people in real communities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s