Derek Wall is currently writing an intellectual biography of Elinor Ostrom and is a little tearful.

Elinor Ostrom, the first – and so far, only – woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, died on Monday. She was awarded the prize in 2009 for her work on the commons, in which she challenged Garrett Hardin’s concept of the Tragedy of the Commons, showing through detailed case studies that local people could manage the environment without destroying it.

Elinor Ostrom: 1933 - 2012


She was, in her own words, “born poor” in Los Angeles in 1933, and overcame significant barriers to reach the top of her profession. Although her parents had divorced, she was bullied because of her father’s Jewish ethnicity, and she was barred from studying advanced maths at high school because of her gender. In a 2009 interview she said: “Having that experience as a kid and being a woman, and having that challenge as it has been at different times to be a woman, I’ve got pretty good sympathy for people who are not necessarily at the centre of civic appreciation”

When she sought to do a PhD in the early 1960s, a row broke out in the UCLA Political Science department, as some of the faculty were hostile towards the idea of funding a female student. They had not admitted a woman to the doctoral programme for several years, but that year four out of the forty new graduate students were women. It was during her graduate studies that she met the political scientist Vincent Ostrom, whom she married in 1963, and worked with for the rest of her life.

As a political economist, her academic position is difficult to define. Her concerns were broadly left green: she was a passionate defender of indigenous people, fought for employment rights for minorities, advocated the indigenous seven generation rule, and focussed through her career on environmental sustainability.  However, she eschewed a class analysis and was very much a ‘micro’ economist, preferring to study the behaviour of individuals in a market system, as opposed to the structure of the economy as a whole.

Above all, she drew upon the market-based philosopher Friedrich von Hayek (who influenced the policies of Thatcher and Reagan), but showed how Game Theory could be used for cooperation instead of competition. She and Vincent used a market based approach to ultimately subvert much of market based economics, although they never believed in the efficiency of the state either. What is clear from her work is a belief in a kind of practical anarchy or radical republicanism; people can get together and govern themselves.

Although she was never a Marxist, she was an advocate of communal ownership, and spent decades researching the nuts and bolts of such systems. She saw neither the market nor the state as a panacea, but came up with the radical idea that non-market non-state property, and moneyless economic activity, were possible. The commons, collaborative consumption, and social sharing all provide ways of giving us more access to goods and services, with less pressure on the environment.

Elinor Ostrom’s approach to the commons and sustainability point the way to a future that works. She always saw her work as a collaboration both with her husband and with scholars in five continents. Astonishingly anti-dogmatic and open to criticism, she took a draft of her Nobel Speech to a workshop and encouraged colleagues to rip it apart.

Often, you meet your heroes and they can seem like cardboard cut-outs. But Elinor was the real thing: a generous, passionate, free thinker. Despite being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011, she continued researching, teaching and lecturing almost to the last; her final piece of writing, ‘Green from the Grassroots’, was published on the day of her death. When I met her in London in March, I gave her an article about women physically destroying the fences around Plumstead Common in 1876 to free it from the enclosers. Her eyes lit up with delight.

It is my sincere belief that if humans beings are to prosper, they will do so only by embracing her approach to economics. Elinor Ostrom was an amazing pioneer and she will be missed, but she was a node in a network that will continue to grow.


Further Reading:

Digital Library of the Commons

Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize Lecture: Beyond Markets and States:Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems

Her final article, published on 12th June 2012: ‘Green from the Grassroots’

Coevolving Relationships between Political Science and Economics A summary of the developments in interdisciplinary developments over the past fifty years, written by Elinor Ostrum and published in the journal Rationality, Markets and Morals earlier this year.

Her most influential book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990.