Elinor Ostrom: 1933–2012

Chris Meyer

Lin Ostrom led a revolution in our understanding of how society can govern our natural resources. Around the globe, millions of humans and countless members of other species benefit from her ideas on how to manage ecosystems. Sadly, Lin passed away on June 12, 2012, at the age of 78. Her husband, friend, and close collaborator, Vincent Ostrom, died two weeks later on June 29 at the age of 92. Lin worked tirelessly until her last days, not only because she felt the work was important but also because she had fun doing it.

Most social science disciplines have examined the problems of effective group action—how we can manage resources and work together toward common goals, whether preserving fish stocks, managing forests, or keeping air and water clean. But when Lin began her career, the literature on group action was a cacophony of different disciplines using different languages: collective action, coordination problems, prisoner’s dilemma, social traps, the tragedy of the commons, to name a few. In 1968 American ecologist Garrett Hardin’s influential essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” argued that resource management by local communities could only lead to disaster. Hardin’s essay remains one of the most cited scientific papers ever published. It led national governments and international aid agencies to promote either central government control or privatization of natural resources. The results were often devastating for local people and ecosystems because, as Lin’s work documented, both government regulation and privatization can be ineffective and lead to resource collapse.

Lin’s career orchestrated harmony from the cacophony of research on group action. Vincent and Lin shared an interest in how institutional arrangements—the rules we follow—shape human behavior. Lin’s dissertation in 1965 demonstrated that water managers in southern California often found practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Over the years, in studies ranging from policing in suburban America to community forest management in Nepal, she saw that, unlike the “tragedy” of the commons, people can find effective ways to work together and manage resources for the good of all. The solutions they create are often complex and nuanced, while simple prescriptions like privatization and government control can lead to disaster.

Lin’s work moved the field away from overly simplistic formulations like Hardin’s and led to the creation of a new, integrated science of commons. As a result, we have a robust understanding of why communities, governments, and markets sometimes succeed and sometimes fail in managing natural resources. We better understand how to build resource governance systems that are successful. She moved our thinking away from supposed panaceas, like central government control or markets, to examine practical solutions to real problems. Lin never accepted artificial boundaries in science; the problems of resource governance were too important to wall off one form of knowledge from another. She pushed for shared definitions of terms and for learning from each other across anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology. She insisted that all the methods of the social sciences, from history and local case studies to laboratory experiments and computer models, had something to contribute to this important scientific puzzle. Lin was well aware that group action is one of the most fundamental puzzles in the sciences. She was equally well aware that it was a practical issue that affected the lives of many communities. So she was passionate about making sure the science of group action was of the highest quality possible. Good science was not only interesting, it was the only way to forge sound solutions to critical problems.

I first met Lin in 1998 when we worked on the study that became The Drama of the Commons (2002). We wanted to summarize and synthesize the diverse streams of research on commons. Working with her was one of the finest experiences of my professional life. She was immensely serious about the importance of doing rigorous and thorough analysis, testing both new ideas and old ones. She was tireless in the work. Yet she was never without a smile and warmth that embraced her friends and collaborators. She was committed to working with new scholars from around the world, launching dozens of careers, and asking only that they too understand the importance of research on resource management. She gave us not only major scientific insights but also a global community that continues to advance our understanding and improve our practice. My collaboration with Lin was a small part of her continuous effort to build that community.1,2 I was very proud that the Nobel committee cited our work as part of the rationale for awarding her the Nobel Prize in Economics—she was the first woman ever to win that honor. And I was not surprised when Lin insisted that the Nobel honored not just her but all the scholars who worked with her at Indiana University, where she spent her career, and elsewhere—it was a tribute to everyone who helped in building our understanding of commons. She knew that science itself is a commons, and to have sustainable science we have to build the capacity of our community.

Lin grew up in near-poverty in Los Angeles. She benefited from a public good: the superb public education system of California that allowed her to earn her BA and, later, her MA and PhD in political science at UCLA. Like most women of her generation who sought an academic career, she faced skepticism from those who thought women couldn’t make serious contributions to science. Whenever she met an obstacle, she found a way past it, using her sharp analytical skills, her limitless energy, and her good humor to find solutions others couldn’t see. When Vincent joined the faculty at Indiana University in 1964, there was no faculty position for her. But nine years later, she was a respected cofounder with Vincent of the Indiana Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. The workshop was their intellectual home for the rest of their lives. It and the newly founded Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University carry on their work.

Lin strongly believed that the problems of resource management had solutions, so it is no surprise that she was a supporter of Solutions. The message of her 2010 essay published here synthesizes much of her work. There are no panaceas—markets, governments, and communities sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Success or failure comes from building systems that learn and that are hybrids of markets, regulations, and community governance. There are solutions. There is no universal solution.

Those who knew her will miss her, but we are inspired to carry on her example—serious science applied to important problems. We can only strive to emulate her good humor and generosity as well.