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.