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« Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) | Main | Question About the Economics of E-Books »


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I have tremendous respect for the work of Elinor Ostrom. I had her book "Governing the Commons" on my nightstand when I heard of her death, and had recently been passing it out to colleagues.

However, I think that Ostrom was naive in this particular article about the toxic mix between radical environmentalism, radical democracy, and bad economics that has become the "grassroots" green movement across much of Europe. To me, it looks more like A Road to Serfdom than a road to sustainability.

Radical grassroots direct democracy combined with economic ignorance and a disdain for private property still leads to bad policy, regardless of whether this occurs at the city, state, or national level. Lin Ostrom should have realized this.

We now getting exactly what her paper has called for all across Europe. We do not need to wait, it has become a reality now. She celebrates it. Time will tell where it leads.

A great lady, but a very unfortunate last article.

I would say that it was a fine way to go out. Environmental policy should be managed by those at the level that it occurs at by those most involved and affected.

One of the things about her piece here that I liked that shouldn't get lost in the obvious Bloomington emphasis on grassroots is that there is a very real sense in which "the commons" in the case of climate change is global. She still notes it would be a tragedy for Rio to fail. The question is, what kind of deal do we want out of it?

What we should want is a broad framework that allows for a lot of different decentralized approaches. Because this particular commons is global, I think she's right not to reject the international agreement itself - just a one-size-fits-all version of the international agreement.

This is how welfare reform worked too - a broader framework with decentralized implementation and lots of buy in from non-government, non-market participants. That's how health reform could have and should have gone.


I certainly agree with you (and Lin Ostrom) that bottoms up solutions and organic policy that eminate locally from the direct stakeholders is far superior to one size fits all global-made policy. Lin Ostrom has been brilliant in using game theory to analyze the way that bottoms up solutions can emerge from a would-be tradgedy of the commons. Nobody has been a bigger fan than me. She ended up being a pretty darn good geologist too!

However, I am reacting to the specifics of what is happeing in many of the green cities in Europe, in places like the adopted hometown of FA Hayek, Freiburg, Germany (as green as it gets). These green cities are certainly not immune to the frailties of public choice, and often good politics turns out to be bad economics.

Lin Ostrom's optimism about the success of these types of experiments is inflated in my opinion. The green parties are spreading pseudo science and fear, and maintaining their grip on power by demonizing private enterprises that do not have their stamp of approval. When governments are in the business of picking winners and losers through subsidies, and moralizing about who gets their back scratched by the city and who gets the boot, I get skeptical of just how "democratic" they really are. Ostrom paints a great picture of a success case, but my prediction is that instead of being a magnate for the educated and beautiful of our world, when the politics of bad economics runs its course, many will flee these towns like rats off a sinking ship. It aleady beginning in some places.

The only good thing is that these are truly local experiments, and that is definately a very good thing. Local governments compete with each other for citizens. But pardon me if I am just a bit on the cynical side about the green governments spreading across Germany.


you say "climate change is global"

Please think about this carefully. Climate is a statistical aggregate of the weather and scores of statistics on local and regional weather patterns. As such, no person, local, or even regional community experiences "global climate", and unless you happen to live in a few low lying coastal cities around the world, the entire concept of a global climate commons is greatly misunderstood by most people.

Global eustacy (ice caps+isosteric changes due to heat content and fresh water) is about the only component of the earth climate system that reacts more or less on a global level to changes in well-mixed greehouse gases, and for what its worth, I can tell you with some degree of knowledge that sea level changes driven by the global mean radiating temperature of Earth are not nearly as straightforward as you might have read in the newspaper.

What we do know is that changes in weather patterns (storm tracks) are indeed experienced by scores of people on a local and regional level. These can be affected a great deal by human disturbance, but surprisingly much of this disturbance is also locally produced. In fact the anthropogenic climate footprint on a local level is most often much larger than any "global" effect from the addition of well-mixed greenhouse gases (this is not a controversial statement). When we change landscapes, build, and put aerosols into the atmosphere, these are local and regional forcings that truly have a great impact.

Good science is a good place to start when considering policy.

K Sralla -
You misunderstand. Our actions that affect the climate affect it globally, not just locally (which is different from, say, water pollution). Certainly we all experience local climates which are only aggregated into a very heterogeneous global climate picture.

I'm well aware of the local nature of a lot of climate forcing. These are what drive the local variability. It's funny - the skeptics mock the fact that people favor the word "climate change" over "global warming" precisely because of this local variability in how it's expressed. The skeptics can be so ideological themselves sometimes they assume the other side is just using alternative terminology for ideological reasons.

Anyway - I'm sure you have a more detailed knowledge of all of this than I do, but I'm aware of everything you've raised here. The point is this is still quite different and quite a bit more global than a watershed issue. I'm with Lin on this one myself - the problem is global and "inaction in Rio would be disastrous" (her words), but the solution cannot by one-size-fits-all.

Now that I'm posting a long response anyway I might as well share my reaction to this piece from the day it came out: http://www.factsandotherstubbornthings.blogspot.com/2012/06/ostrom-on-decentralized-environmental.html

Just to be clear, I am no skeptic human-caused climate change, just skeptical of politicians acting under bad institutions, and under the assumptions of bad economics.

The problem I have with Rio, etc. is that we are trying to use rational constructivism to try to organize a chaotic, self-organizing, dissipative system. Doesn't anyone see the exact problem with this?

Sadly, Elinor Ostrom's solution is more of the same, central planning by governing bodies. It has not worked. It will not work.

True sustainability is not about the supply of scarce goods (all economic goods are scarce). It is about the allocation of scarce goods. As Hayek and Mises have told us, individuals working in government can never have enough information to make the correct allocation. As imperfect as it is, prices; that is, prices determined by the voluntary exchange of private property, are civilized individuals only hope for finding a truly sustainable existence.

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