What Elinor Ostrom Means For All Of Us

I was saddened to see that one of my personal inspirational figures, Professor Elinor Ostrom, died last Tuesday, June 12th of pancreatic cancer. Ostrom’s work was absolutely integral to my own development as both an academic, and a member of humanity. As a PhD candidate in the Department of Human and Community Development at the University of Illinois, Ostrom’s work drives my passion for co-ops as a counterpower or corrective to corrosive systems of dependency. Despite the sadness I find myself left with, I take great solace in what Ostrom has left behind for us to carry on with; entire research databases and libraries, a 50 year legacy of nurturing young scholars focused on solutions oriented research, and innovative approaches to understanding human behavior through the creation of the Indiana University research institute affectionately referred to as the “Ostrom Workshop”. Whereas many others are writing about her character — and no doubt, her character is a remarkably positive attribute of her legacy — I choose to focus on what Ostrom has done to help us understand how we can indeed govern ourselves, a question that oddly enough is situated within the core premise of both American and anarchist experiments. I also choose to focus on our responsibility to act upon that treasured knowledge Ostrom worked so hard to provide for us.

Ostrom remains an academic unlike many others. She transcended the debates found in most of the dogmatic Marxist, libertarian and heterodox economic circles by subverting the ideological divides, understanding that complex questions would require involved and complex answers, complex because the findings would have major social and economic implications:

– Are individuals motivated by considerations other than crude selfishness?
– Are individuals forever locked in a struggle against each other for power and control?
– Can individuals overcome substantial barriers to address critical issues such as climate change?

Ostrom (and her husband Vincent who survives Elinor and also a principal theorist in polycentric institutional orders) explored these questions by trying to understand how the “science and art of association” is utilized by real people situated in social dilemmas. The evidence of Ostrom’s work points to yes; humankind has the capacity to develop community based solutions and act concertedly to avert disasters.

But, were it not for the pioneering work of Ostrom, we may very well be stuck mired in the old debates of hegemony, public versus private, or the efficacy of expert over local, tacit knowledge. Ostrom leaves us a legacy of aspiration for the greater good of individuals, individuals with the capacity to work together for a better future, and to manage their own affairs. Because of her work, we are freed from having to apologize for challenging public policies which place authority in the hands of the few, and instead we are all now bolstered with the knowledge that “the many” have enormous capacity to control their own fate.

Myself, I am honored to be entering the Indiana University Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis as a visiting scholar. I will be carrying on the Ostrom tradition by plying their theories of polycentrism, democratic governance, and local public economies to better understand the U.S. co-operative sector. The core idea is to build upon their orientation that society is more than just the state or the market, but instead a rich tapestry of institutions crafted to meet the needs of those who depend upon them, that institutional form matters in their impact on the community hosting them. Cooperatives may indeed be a corrective force for the current societal decay (as I believe), but until further scientific exploration, we cannot know; thankfully the Ostrom Workshop provides invaluable tools to guide us in our search toward these truths.

While saddened that I never will have had the opportunity to work with such a remarkable person, I am lucky to have met Ostrom on two occasions and to work with a research center shaped by such brilliance.

Ostrom’s work expresses both a deep concern for the trajectory of humankind and an optimism in our capacity to solve these common dilemmas. Thankfully, her work has provided us with substantive clues as to how we might build toward that capacity. I hope that we all might aspire to not only be as intellectually curious as Ostrom, but also humbly driven to tackle these issues without fear and with great haste. Now more than ever, we need individual leaders capable of emulating the broad vision that Ostrom, her husband, and the Workshop has set forth.

Dilemmas of corporate and state power, economic collapse, climate change, and community resilience will not be solved by the grand designs of centralized management. Doing nothing is in a sense blind faith in our current system that has become unmoored from the Tocquevillian foundation of citizen democracy. We cannot become dependent by relying on those (politicians or “job creators”) who set us along our current catastrophic chain of events to free us from “the pain of living” and “the trouble of thinking.” If we want to see a different world, change must come from ourselves.

It will be you.

And me.

Ostrom never said democracy was a simple process. It won’t be easy. But we have the capacity to do it. And the fact that Ostrom showed us that when so many others refused to believe it is a remarkable legacy. I say, let’s do this.

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