When Dr. Ostrom came forward as the recipient of the world’s most prestigious award in economics, many scholars were caught unawares — and not only because the so-called dismal science had long been dominated by men. Never trained as an economist, Dr. Ostrom was technically a political scientist.
But even that label inadequately described the elaborate anthropological fieldwork she pursued. Beginning in the 1960s, Dr. Ostrom traipsed across the Los Angeles water basin and the American Midwest, through Swiss pastures and into the villages of Nepal to gather evidence for a theory that few of her contemporaries believed.
In essence, Dr. Ostrom contended that individuals and communities could effectively manage their own collective resources — such as fisheries, forests and water supplies — without the intrusion of government regulation or private industry.
“What we have ignored,” she said after her Nobel Prize was announced, “is what citizens can do . . . as opposed to just having someone in Washington or at a far, far distance make a rule.”
For much of Dr. Ostrom’s career, many economists were deeply influenced by the principle of the “tragedy of the commons.” Named for the overgrazing of pastures during the 1800s, the parable suggests that individuals acting in self-interest will ultimately deplete a resource — such as a pasture — that is open to everyone.
Scholars used the parable to demonstrate the need for government regulation or control by private industry. Dr. Ostrom disputed this, pointing to empirical evidence she had gathered around the world to prove that local knowledge, cooperation and enlightened self-interest could be more effective than regulatory leviathans.
“It’s much more fashionable to believe that . . . you can’t trust people to solve their own problems,” said Rick K. Wilson, a professor of political science at Rice University in Texas and a former student of Dr. Ostrom’s.
Dr. Ostrom collected her findings in publications including the book “Governing the Commons” (1990). She described the community collaboration in Los Angeles in the 1960s to prevent seawater from seeping into the city’s freshwater supply. In Nepal, she found that villagers’ rudimentary irrigation systems worked more effectively than high-tech government river dams. The dams, she noted, had made neighborly communication obsolete.
She called upon history, studying 1920s quota agreements among fishermen in Maine, and applied her theories to disciplines outside of ecology. In the Midwest and across the United States in the 1970s and ’80s, she found that small local police departments were more effective than lumbering metropolitan forces.