Elinor Ostrom breaks Nobel mould

The economics profession needs to be shaken up. Ostrom’s Nobel prize should encourage us to take a fresh approach

Kevin Gallagher
Tuesday 13 October 2009 17.00 BST

The economics profession is in such disarray that one of the Nobel prizes in economics this year went to political scientist Elinor Ostrom – the first woman to be awarded the economics prize. This is an excellent choice (in any year) not only because of what Ostrom has contributed to social theory but also because of how she goes about her work.

In a nutshell, Ostrom won the Nobel prize for showing that privatising natural resources is not the route to halting environmental degradation.

In most economics classes the environment is usually taught as being the victim of the “tragedy of the commons”. If one assumes, like many economists do, that individuals are ruthlessly selfish individuals, and you put those individuals onto a commonly owned resource, the resource will eventually be destroyed. The solution: privatise the commons. Everyone will have ownership of small parcels and treat that parcel better than when they shared it.

Many environmental experts also reject the tragedy of the commons argument and say the government should step in.

Ostrom says the government may not be the best allocator of public resources either. Often governments are seen as illegitimate, or their rules cannot be enforced. Indeed, Ostrom’s life work looking at forests, lakes, groundwater basins and fisheries shows that the commons can be an opportunity for communities themselves to manage a resource.

In her classic work Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrom shows that under certain conditions, when communities are given the right to self-organise they can democratically govern themselves to preserve the environment.

At the policy level, Ostrom’s findings give credence to the many indigenous and peasant movements across the developing world where people are trying to govern the land they have managed for centuries but run into conflict with governments and global corporations. Some economists on the frontier of their discipline have started to use Ostrom’s insights in their work. In their recent book Reclaiming Nature: Environmental Justice and Ecological Restoration, James Boyce, Liz Stanton and Sunita Narain, show how communities in Brazil, India, West Africa and even in the United States have managed their resources in a sustainable manner when given their rightful access to their assets.

Indeed, Boyce and his collaborators find that communities should be paid for their services, since they can sometimes do a far better job than government or corporations at managing resources. Indeed, “payment for environmental services” has become a buzzword in development circles. Now even the World Bank has a fund for PES schemes across the world.

In terms of methodology, Ostrom proves her findings three times over. As opposed to many economists who never leave the blackboard, Ostrom often conducts satellite analyses of resource depletion to measure amounts of degradation. Second, she actually goes out into the field and performs case studies of human and ecological behaviour all across the world. However, she doesn’t stop there. When she gets back from her fieldwork she conducts behavioural experiments to see if random subjects replicate her findings in the field.

The Nobel committee should be applauded for recognising such rigorous theoretical and empirical work. Shining light on Ostrom is a call to economists to spend a lot more time analysing human behaviour, rather than assuming that we are all rational selfish individuals. It is also a call on economists to become more empirical and to find ways to validate their theories.

Adopting Ostrom’s approach will not only help us forge a better relationship with the natural environment, but will help us become more realistic about the economy in general. It’s time for a fresh approach to both.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009
Visit The Guardian and see other Gallagher columns:
For more on GDAE’s Globalization and Sustainable Development Program:

Ostrom & Williamson win Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences 2009

Elinor Ostrom

Co-Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences 2009

Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, USA

“for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”

Oliver E. Williamson

Co-Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences 2009

University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

“for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm”

For more information you can check out the Nobel Prize website or the New York Times article by Louis Uchitelle.

MSU Ph.D. Graduate Research Assistantship

Title: Ph.D. Graduate Research Assistantships, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan

Job Description: Graduate research assistant wanted to join interdisciplinary team on NSF supported research (Coupled Natural and Human Systems #0815966). The project, Globalization and the Connection of Remote Communities, addresses the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of expanding market, migration, and technology networks on remote human settlements in twelve small communities along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Student will conduct field research, write manuscripts for publication, and contribute to the generation of additional grant proposals. Assistantship starts Fall of 2010 although funds will be available to support preliminary field work in the summer of 2010. Please refer to the project web site for additional information: http://www.globalchange.msu.edu/nicaragua/

Qualifications: Seeking outstanding student in the social sciences with strong interdisciplinary interests related to the conservation of biodiversity. Candidate’s primary academic interest should be in a relevant social science (e.g. resource economics, sociology, anthropology, international development, geography) with some training, experience, or interest in the environmental sciences, ecology, conservation biology, fisheries or wildlife. A bachelor’s degree is required although a master’s degree is preferred. Must have excellent GPA and GRE scores. A strong work ethic, good verbal and written communication skills, ability to work independently and as a productive member of a research team are required. International travel and work experience as well as fluency in Spanish are strongly preferred.

Salary & Benefits: Four years of funding (Ph.D.) at a half time appointment of 20 hours per week with a monthly stipend, tuition waver, and health benefits. For more information on graduate assistantships at MSU see http://grad.msu.edu/assistantships/docs/assistantship.pdf.

Application Instructions: Interested candidates should send the following information electronically to Dr. Daniel Kramer at dbk@msu.edu by October 30th, 2009. Pre-application inquiries are welcome.

  1. Cover letter indicating your research, academic, and career interests
  2. CV
  3. Academic transcripts (unofficial copies are fine initially)
  4. GRE scores (unofficial copies are fine initially)
  5. Names and contact information (including email addresses) for 3 references

Contact Information:
Dr. Daniel Kramer
370 North Case Hall
James Madison College and the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife
East Lansing, MI 48825
Tel: (517) 432-2199
Email: dbk@msu.edu

Temporary Federal Postdoctoral Position at Atlantic Ecology Division in Narragansett, RI

US Environmental Protection Agency

National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory
Postdoctoral Program Atlantic Ecology Division Narragansett, RI
Temporary Federal Position

Benefit-cost analysis of “gray” versus “green” infrastructure Project Number:  AED-09-14-09-203
Division: Atlantic Ecology Division
Branch: Watershed Diagnostics Branch
Geographic Location: Narragansett, RI

Project Description

The position will support research expected to yield method(s) for benefit-cost analysis of the use of traditional man-made (or “gray”) infrastructure versus the use Green Infrastructure (GI) and Low Impact  Development (LID) to manage storm water. EPA’s Office of Water (OW) has  endorsed the incorporation of GI and LID practices into the development of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), either through the Load Allocation process for current and future nonpoint sources, or through TMDL Implementation Plans or equivalent watershed management plans. Stormwater management practices can be implemented through either regulatory means (e.g., stormwater permits, or local ordinances) or through incentive-based programs. Guidance is needed by EPA Regions, States, watershed/coastal management organizations and local communities on the  benefits and costs of traditional “gray” infrastructure used to manage storm water as compared with GI and LID practices. Estimation of benefits will require valuation of ecosystem services provided by green  infrastructure. Research will be coordinated among EPA’s National Heath and Environmental Effects and National Risk Management Research Laboratories; Office of Research and Development’s Water Quality and Ecosystem Services Research Programs; and EPA’s Stormwater and TMDL Programs.

Projected Duration of Appointment: 3 years
Educational Requirements:  Ph.D. in Ecological Economics, Ecology,Environmental Science, Environmental Engineering, or closely related field.
Specialized training or experience preferred:  Cost-benefit analysis,ecological economics, valuation of ecosystem services, evaluation of best management practices
Scientific Contact/Principal Investigator: Naomi Detenbeck, detenbeck.naomi@epa.gov, 401-782-3162
Application information: Due Date: October 30,2009 For application instructions click here.  Please do not apply directly to the scientific contact.

SCB Conference July, 2010

The Society for Conservation Biology is holding its annual meeting in Edmonton early July next year and the Social Science Working Group is trying to ensure that economics are well-represented at the meeting again this year (the last time it will be in North America until 2014).

For more information click here. You can also contact Dr. Murray A. Rudd, Assistant Professor/Canada Research Chair in Ecological Economics at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial University of Newfoundland in Corner Brook, NL, Canada A2H 6P9. You may also contact him at 709-639-7595 or email.

International 350 Teach-In on October 22

The US Senate debates climate legislation this fall. Bring that debate­ and the eyes and ears of your Senator– directly to your school. On October 22nd, join the International 350 Teach-In, and invite a representative from the district office of your US Senator. We have a final chance now to engage students in the debate before the Senate acts­ or fails to act­ on legislation that will determine their future. And as educators, we have a profound responsibility to not let this moment pass.

The Teach-In is being held in conjunction with the International Day of Action called by Bill McKibben and his team at 350.org­ over 1450 groups around the world are taking part. Through the Teach-In, bring this critical conversation about a safe and prosperous future to campus.

Planning the Teach-In is simple: host a 90 minute session, with five to eight faculty speaking for 3 minutes each. We have a sample letter to your Senator and will have sample questions for when their reps arrive, as well as downloadable posters and other materials.

Learn more on our organizing call, Wednesday 9/23. The organizing conversation follows the National Climate Seminar, next week featuring Stanford climatologist, Dr. Stephen Schneider. Dr. Schneider will discuss the latest generation of climate model forecasts: is the outlook for the planet getting worse? Is it too late for meaningful action?

Later in the term, look to hear from Bill McKibben, the Honorable Edward Markey, Hunter Lovins, Andy Revkin and others. Click here for National Climate Seminar details.

Thanks for your ongoing work engaging students and citizens in these critical debates. And please register your own views with your US Senators every week.

Professor Eban Goodstein,
Director National Teach-In on Global Warming Solutions

A Critique of Ecological Economics

While I praise ecological economics for its environmental strengths, I point to several areas that I believe are weak or erroneous. Specifically, I critically examine the fields historical vision, its perspective on capitalism, its use of the term natural capital, its interpretations of value and cost, and its definition of optimal scale.


Comments on my views by USSEE members – either publicly on YouTube or privately by email – are welcome.

Frank Rotering [Independent Economic Thinker]
Vancouver, Canada

Fulbright International Exchange Program

Applications for U.S. Fulbright Scholar Awards and a Distinguished Chair Award in Brazil (pdf)

The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is the U.S. governmentu2019s flagship international exchange program and is supported by the people of the United States and partner countries around the world. Since 1946, the Fulbright Program has provided more than 286,000 participants from over 155 countries with the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research, to exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns. For more information, visit us online.

Transforming the Economy for a Just and Sustainable World