Tagged: Saving the Commons

Elinor Ostrom’s Legacy of the Commons

At this time in history, 78 is still far too young an age to be swept into the future. For four decades, Elinor and her colleagues have been slaying a myth that was breathed into life by Ecologist Garrett Hardin‘s misunderstanding of the nature of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The myth is that people cannot self-govern … and yet that, somehow, a higher mortal authority is imagined to have the elusive capacity to govern with humane wisdom.

This myth brings us to where we have come today. The upturned eyes of hope and blame are focused on national leaders and diverted away from our immediate neighbors. “We the people” was never intended as “They the people” – even in representative democracy. The lazy and simplistic dodge of abrogating citizen duties for understand complex issues has led to a situation in which even our elected representatives now no longer deliberate for purposes of shared understanding. Our elected representatives mirror us and they too dodge the duty to collectively understand situations — and in doing so they yield themselves and our futures up to the influence of forms of veiled thinking that speaks most loudly into their ears at the moment that decisions must be made.

Elinor’s life work teaches us all that things do not have to be this way. Her work tells us again and again that throughout the world, things are not run this way.

Elinor’s message to us is far, far too powerful to be interred into the archives of human thought simply because her living voice can no longer prick us. The story that she and her colleagues brought forward has the power to slay myths and to open up new vistas for humanity. We can self govern. The evidence is in. And yet there are prerequisites for effective self-governance. It is this exploration that should and must become the living legacy of Elinor’s work.

There are many facets to Elinor’s teaching that speak directly to the practice of participatory democracy. She is best known perhaps for her systems view of the ecological Commons, polycentricity (there are multiple centers of agency in governance), and design principles for institutional renewal. One that is of central concern to us is the necessity for people in a self-governing population to clearly see and deeply feel the necessity for working together to sustain themselves. It is a matter of local, community perception. In a culture that looks for top-down guidance, bailouts and salvation … and a culture that offers individual mobility and fosters community disinvestment … we who choose to once again feel an authentic connection to place have our work cut out for us.

It is through a connection to place – what Cynthia Nikitin of the Project for Public Spaces calls “Place Capital” — that we forge our social capital. And as Craig Lindell of the Institute for 21st Century Agoras says, ‘All fiscal capital comes from social capital.’ So, those of us who are worried about the future of our grand experiment in democracy and its twin experiment in capitalism need to reflect on what might be passing from us at this moment.

There are many who might still look at Elinor’s work and claim that she has studied exceptions that only serve to prove a larger rule. There are those who will look at self-organized democratic communities as somehow being quaint or maybe primitive. There are those who will simply resign themselves to the myth that direct democracy is not scalable, and that representative democracy – with all of its contemporary flaws – is the only way. Yet there also is much agreement that the bridge that we are crossing today is crumbling beneath our feet. Just recently, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and Chairman of the conservative World Economic Forum, was reported to have conceded that “Capitalism in its current form has no place in the world around us.” This is a critically telling utterance because capitalism and its unbridled individual accumulation of wealth has done much to shape contemporary American democracy – and arguably has done even much more to distance governance from the efforts to control influence and corruption which inspired the invention of democracy by the ancient Athenians.

Elinor’s passing is a trumpet call to us all shouting that now is a critically important moment to attend to each other’s business — for the sake of the foundations of the future itself.