Tag Archives: governance

Elinor Ostrom, champion of the sustainable commons, RIP

I just read the very sad news that Professor Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics (in 2009), and an inspiration to many of us struggling to understand and transform the dynamically intertwined human and natural systems, passed away earlier this morning, after a battle with cancer at age 78. She was a remarkable scholar whose life’s work demonstrated that the tragedy of the commons was not an inevitability, but something that people had very often found ways to avoid by building a diversity of institutions for governing the commons for the benefit of all instead of mere private profit for a few. Here she is, in a simple short video, explaining the basic concept of how truly sustainable development can avoid the tragedy of the commons:


I last met Lin Ostrom a little over a year ago, very briefly, in a hallway in Arizona State University’s Memorial Union, in one of the interstices of the Resilience 2011 conference (I shared my talk here). I remember well my nervous thrill at getting to shake the hand of a Nobel Prize winner (my previous meeting with her, which I’m not sure she remembered, had been well before she won the prize) for the first time in my life! She, of course, was very kind and disarming and took a few minutes to sit down and talk to me about our shared connections. My last postdoc mentor, Marty Anderies, is one of her close disciples/collaborators, and I am grateful to him for introducing me to her work, which I consider one of the truly transformational influences in my life. She was happy to hear how one of Marty’s postdocs was now doing in trying to apply some of her ideas to urban water and biodiversity issues. We also talked about one of my newer collaborators, Harini Nagendra, who worked closely with Lin in studying the governance of forest ecosystems in India and Nepal. She told me how she looked forward to speaking with Harini, now based in Bangalore, during their weekly Skype conferences! I wish I had had more opportunities to get to know this truly remarkable, inspirational woman, but am glad I was at least able to meet with her and speak to her on a couple of occasions. One must make the most of whatever chance happenstance grants one a brush with true greatness.

Her website at Indiana University has more details of her life (and death), with links to videos of other talks, photos, and texts. CHANS-Net, the International Network of Research on Coupled Human and Natural Systems, offers this obituary.

If you want to know more about her work, start with her landmark book Governing the Commons, which should really be required reading for all ecologists, especially those who are enamored of the more cynical and popular “tragedy of the commons” meme. Anyone concerned about how to build a more sustainable world, who calls themselves an ecologist/conservation biologist/environmentalist/green activist/deep ecologist really must read her work. It took the Nobel committee long enough to recognize the value of her work at a time when the world’s economies are crumbling under the dictates of the very free-market Chicago-school economists they’ve rewarded far more often. We ecologists had better pay good attention to her work as well, and absorb and internalize her deep insights, as we go about trying to find ways to build a better, more sustainable, more biologically diverse, and more environmentally equitable world. She would have liked to see us try, harder.

How do we reinvent the paradigm of urban water supply for an age of scarcity?

That is the question addressed in a thoughtful and thought-provoking blog post on Grist by Steven Solomon, author of WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization which just made my wish / to-read lists. Here’s an excerpt from this must read Blog Action Day post:

For most of history, cities have
been unsanitary human death traps, unable to provide the two to three quarts of
wholesome freshwater each of us must drink daily to stay alive or the minimum four
to five gallons — roughly the equivalent of three to four modern toilet flushes — needed for
the most elemental cooking, washing, and hygiene. Urban populations normally
restocked only by net influx from impoverished countrysides. Water-borne
diseases like dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever
have been, far and away, mankind’s deadliest killers.

Cheap, abundant freshwater and good sanitation
was one of the key, often forgotten enablers of the demographic transformation
that so dramatically increased human population size, longevity, and urban
concentration. In 1800, only 2.5 percent of the world’s people lived in cities. Today
it’s 50 percent. Projections are that 70 percent of us will do so in the future, even as
world population itself surges from today’s 6.7 billion to over 9 billion by

Read the rest at grist.org

Our troubled relationship with water (Blog Action Day 2010)

How did we get here, in this parched state, fighting for and over something as basic as water, on this watery blue world? Isn’t water a basic element essential for all life, including humans? Like air? How and why have we lost sight of this fundamental truth?

At a late hour on this Blog Action Day 2010, as part of my keyboard action, I want to briefly explore some aspects of our (humanity’s) increasingly troubled relationship with this basic element. (ok, strictly speaking it is a compound, not an element, but you know what I mean here, right?). But first, here’s a brief video highlighting the need for more action on water issues.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/15336764 w=500&h=283]

One obvious reason people are now fighting over water, of course, is that we have more and more people living in places with limited if not dwindling freshwater supplies. It is remarkable that some of the fastest growing cities in the world (Las Vegas, for example) are located in the middle of the desert! (Did you know that?) Remarkably, people face acute shortages of safe drinking water even in far wetter places (Cherrapunji, anyone?), because we have on the one hand stripped bare the watersheds by chopping down formerly dense water-soaking forests, and on the other, failed to develop or deliver appropriate water harvesting / saving / distribution technologies to the poor people living there. Of course, when technology does find its way to such places, it is all too often laced with poison. Throw in changes in rainfall patterns due to global warming, and we’ve got a perfect storm of natural disasters compounded by limitless human stupidity to land us in this situation: we dig deep into aquifers or divert water from remote rivers to support megacities growing in the driest places, even as we neglect the small villages in the wettest places on earth! Gotta love that human ingenuity, for only our species could have conjured up such an unlikely paradoxical pickle in which to land ourselves.

What puzzles me even more is how we have fundamentally changed our relationship with water by turning it into a market commodity! Because that ultimate stupidity is what often lies behind water shortages in most places now. We (i.e., our governments, from Kerala to California to Bolivia) are letting corporations take control of our aquifers and watersheds, so that they can sell the water back to us in bottles and cans, with or without sugar’n’fizz, at exorbitant prices. There’s much profit in that, obviously. But supplying potable water and indoor plumbing to those villagers in Cherrapunji? Surely there can’t be much profit in that! Let them buy the bottles, if they can afford it. Such is the wisdom of the market, of course.

The same logic of the “free” market dictates that municipal water supply agencies be run like self-sustaining (if not for-profit) businesses. Thus do we end up with the paradox of places like Las Vegas, where water departments must, even as they encourage citizens to use less water, keep raising prices on the smaller amount of water they use in order to maintain revenues to keep the department viable in tough budgetary times. Incentivize people to save water by raising prices; see revenues drop as people listen to you and use less water; raise prices again to maintain revenues to keep up the water infrastructure; rinse and repeat! Until people revolt. Or, shrivel up, I suppose. Maybe that is the final solution – wean people completely off of water through this spiraling of costs so we have a dehydrated citizenry that doesn’t need water any more. What a tragicomedy of the commons…

Meanwhile, here in Fresno in the Great Central Valley of California, in one of the richest agricultural counties in this breadbasket of the arid west, we have a growing city that is only just beginning to meter water use! And they are doing it quite tentatively, with a non-tiered rate structure that may not be steep enough to discourage water use. Some of us who have already been trying to reduce water use (without any incentive from the city) may see our water bills go down from the current flat rate. I look forward to that! Yet it is also possible that some of my fellow citizens, upon seeing their bills get lower, may actually increase their water use because that new bill tells them they can use even more without busting their original budgets! So what’s the net result going to be? I hope to be able to tell you as we continue to monitor water use in this city.
It seems to me (non-economist that I am) that it is well nigh impossible to find any free-market solutions to these paradoxes, because it is inherently problematic to charge an industry that relies on profits from selling water to come up with ways to reduce the use of water! Can it really be done, from within this capitalist paradigm? Isn’t it time to reconsider this folly, and start treating water like the public good and human right it really should be? When even the rich societies of the global North / West refuse to invest public funds to ensure a safe and steady water supply for its citizens, what profit is there for corporations to provide such supplies to the poorer peoples of the world?

That surely is a fundamental disconnect in our increasingly troubled relationship with water.

Important Public Hearing in Clovis Tomorrow (9/21) to Protect the Giant Sequoia!

I just received the following email from the Sierra Club about a meeting that is relevant to people in the central valley neighborhood. It involves a public consultation process to decide about what the US Forest Service needs to do to manage the Giant Sequoia National Monument (GSNM). 

The timing conflicts with my graduate class, so I’m deciding on whether to bring the whole class there instead as an engaged educational exercise. We shall see. Meanwhile, those reading this who have the time, should go and participate.

You can learn more about the GSNM on the FS website, and the email below.
From: Sierra Club – Resilient Habitats Natl Camp <marc.heileson@sierraclub.org>
Date: September 20, 2010 8:46:38 AM PDT
To: Sierra Club – Resilient Habitats Natl Camp <alert@sierraclub.org>
Subject: Important Public Hearing Tomorrow (Tuesday 9/21) to Protect the Giant Sequoia!
Reply-To: Sierra Club – Resilient Habitats Natl Camp <marc.heileson@sierraclub.org>

Important Public Hearing Tomorrow (Tuesday 9/21) in Clovis to Protect the Giant Sequoia! 

Please come and support the “Citizens’ Park Alternative” for Giant Sequoia National Monument

Dear Sierra Club Members and Friends in the Fresno area,
We are sending this out as a last reminder for the critical public hearing tomorrow (Tuesday 9/21) in Clovis for managing the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The Forest Service will be taking public comment for the newly released Giant Sequoia National Monument’s management Draft EIS.

This is the second attempt by the Forest Service to create a plan to protect the Giant Sequoia. Their original plan was thrown out by the courts for placing logging interests over preservation. Unfortunately, the Forest Service is once again catering to the logging industry and has failed to provide adequate protection for the treasured Giant Sequoia ecosystem. Some favored agency proposals now call for more tree removal than before the monument was designated.

Citizen activists for the Giant Sequoia have now decided to come forward with a true alternative for managing the monument that will forever protect the Giant Sequoia ecosystem.

**Please come in support and tell the Forest Service to adopt the “Citizens’ Park Alternative” for managing Giant Sequoia National Monument**

It is critical that we attend and show the Forest Service that citizens have a better plan for protecting the Giant Sequoia ecosystem. 

The Giant Sequoia National Monument Public Hearing will be held this:
Tuesday, September 21st at 6:00pm-9:00pm
The Hilton Garden Inn, 520 West Shaw Ave
Clovis, CA

Here are the summarized main points of the Citizens’ Park Alternative:

1) Restore the vision of President Clinton’s Proclamation and protect the giant sequoia ecosystem from continued proposals for logging and other dangers, as proposed in the Forest Service’s preferred alternative

2) The Monument’s Giant Sequoias Groves and intertwined forest ecosystem should be managed in the same fine manner as Sequoia National Park

— This means that fire should be used as the preferred method of ecosystem restoration and fuel reduction treatments

–The plan must prioritize the protection and restoration of healthy habitats for sensitive wildlife species, including fisher, martens, owls, and goshawks

3) Alternative C is not really a park style management alternative and goes too far by eliminating all dispersed recreation 

— Historical recreation is OK, so long as it is consistent with protecting the Monument’s natural resources, including the use of trails and dispersed camping

–Park style management should focus on ecosystem restoration, not recreation management

4) Any mechanical thinning for fuel reduction should be focused in areas directly adjacent to structures

5) Tree removal from the Monument is prohibited by the Clinton Proclamation, unless absolutely necessary, and must be scientifically justified for ecosystem restoration and maintenance or public safety

–This means that any larger trees that are cut should be left in the monument because they generally are not the type of material that causes unwanted fire behavior and are needed for ecosystem restoration

–Any removal of trees, tree limbs, and slash should be focused on small diameter material, which is the type of material that could cause unwanted fire behavior

–Salvage logging should be expressly prohibited because it is only done for commercial purposes and prohibited by the Clinton Proclamation

–The Forest Service should cancel the three remaining commercial timber sales in the Monument still under contract that were held illegal by the Federal Court:  Frog, Saddle, and White Mountain

6) All Roadless Areas should be managed to maintain their Wilderness potential, and the Forest Service must keep its promise from the last plan revision to recommend the Moses Roadless Area as Wilderness

Please make the effort to attend this important event and invite your friends and neighbors.

For any questions contact: marc.heileson@sierraclub.org

For additional information, go to the GSNM website at:http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/sequoia/gsnm_planning.html

Thanks and see you there!! 

To adjust your Sierra Club email preferences, please reply to this email with a description of your wishes. Thank you.

Sierra Club 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA  94105

Government? Regulating corporations? It’s Complicated!


Meanwhile, a full 26 years, and some 25,000 human lives later, an Indian court yesterday convicted 8 Union Carbide officials (all Indian, btw, working for this multinational giant corporation) for their role in the nocturnal gas leak that is one of the worst industrial disasters ever. Yay!! Justice at last!!

And the court then sentenced them (at least the 7 convicts still alive today) to the harsh harsh punishment of 2 years imprisonment and a fine each of ~$2125!

That’ll teach them! Hell yeah!!! BP take heed!!!!

Corporations can’t go about doing whatever they frakking please for profit when you have such governments and judiciaries keeping a sharp eye on them, ready to slap them down! On the wrist. For killing 3500 people overnight, and another 20,000+ in the subsequent 26 years.

Isn’t it great then, that corporations are deemed to have similar (or greater) rights of personhood as human citizens in matters of, oh, buying elections, lobbying congress, and other routine ways of turning democracy into fascism. But they cannot be held liable for more than pennies for all the damage they may inflict on people or planet in the pursuit of profits, especially short-term, because after all, profits trump human beings. Every time.

Now, is that so complicated?