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The Sustainable Economics of Elinor OstromA toolkit for the future

Derek Wall’s critical appreciation of the life and work of Elinor Ostrom is timely,
says Gerry Gold

Reports that scientists are losing hope of a breakthrough in negotiations among political leaders before the 2015 global climate change summit is another unwanted sign of the critical state of our ecosystems.

There’s no sign of a slow-down, let alone stabilisation in the push from transnational corporations to increase the extraction of fossilised vegetation they depend on to fuel growth and profits.

So institutions and rules to replace capitalist social relations become more urgent by the hour and  Derek Wall’s respectful, critical appreciation of the life and work of Elinor Ostrom provides a timely signpost in that direction.

According to Wall, a leading member of the Green Party propelling its international agenda,  the legacy of Nobel prize-winning Ostrom, who died in 2012, “provides a way of thinking about how humanity can create truly sustainable development, maintaining key ecosystems while meeting human needs”.

What better reason today could there be for buying, studying and applying the lessons from this book?

With her husband and close colleague Vincent, Ostrom spent a lifetime leading and working with multi-disciplinary teams applying and developing the tools of science in the search for proven solutions to the key problems of our time.

Perhaps her most famous achievement was the debunking of Garret Hardin’s famous “Tragedy of the Commons” theory, the idea that self-interested individuals would always seek to maximise the benefit they could extract from common resources including land, and that this would lead to its overuse and exhaustion.

The Ostroms’ research programme produced contrary conclusions, showing that in the right circumstances people can and frequently do construct rules that allow them to manage their environment without destroying it. 

Wall’s painstaking, critical dissection of the wide-ranging sources which the Ostroms drew on – from Hayek to Hobbes and Hofstadter, and from E.P. Thompson to Alexis Tocqueville – and the interweaving of threads of theory and practice, reveal a unique history.

Elinor referred to herself as a political economist, but her interests and activities spread far beyond the limits of even that broad description, and Wall shows that attempts at finding a category into which she could fit comfortably tend to diminish the potential reach of her influence.  Though by no means an overt anti-capitalist, her vision was not limited to the constraints of the dominant, capitalist, for-profit mentality.

Despite the relative slimness of the volume, Wall manages to pack in material about those who’ve studied Ostrom’s work, including sociologist Eoin Flaherty in his work on the Irish rundales, as well as her critics like geographer David Harvey.

There are pointers to a huge amount of information, from the Haudenosaunee Confederation’s seven-generation rule to the contradictory pressures at work in the struggle for control of the new commons of cyberspace. Wall’s pithy summaries serve to whet the appetite prompting the study necessary for a deeper understanding of the Ostroms’ radical approach to theory and practice.

Wall ends his book with the certainty that Ostrom’s inspiration was a toolkit which could be used to analyse and help craft human institutions that work better. Much food for thought, then.

14 July 2014

Derek Wall, The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom: Commons, contestation and craft. Routledge, 2014

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