The Gabriola Commons offers our grateful tribute to Elinor Ostrom, who died at age 78 on June 12, 2012. Ostrom received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her outstanding research on the management of common property.
The founding participants in the Gabriola Commons were strongly influenced by Elinor’s book, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990). Lin researched hundreds of collective common-property management regimes, as she said in her Nobel acceptance speech, “to identify a set of core underlying lessons that characterised the long sustained regimes as contrasted to the cases of failure”. She synthesised these lessons into ‘Design Principles’ for governing the commons, which were a major influence in creating the Gabriola Commons Charter, and the structure by which our Commons is run today.
Until Elinor Ostrom published her ground-breaking work, the conventional scientific view was that groups sharing a common property resource – such as an irrigation system, a pasture, a fishery – inevitably create overuse and resource collapse, an outcome known as ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ which could only be prevented by privatisation or government intervention.
Elinor proved them wrong. Her extensive research found hundreds of cases in which self-managed groups succeeded in managing a common resource sustainably, a few for over a thousand years.
The standard neoclassical economics model is based on ‘homo economicus’, the assumption that people act on self-interest alone. Elinor’s work was a foundational challenge to this model. She disproved the assumptions of neoliberal ideology, and demonstrated the validity of what we might call the Gabriola way – building social capital based on mutual aid and reciprocal trust.
In 1989, Lin Ostrom was one of the “founding mothers” of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC). The Gabriola Commons has acknowledged our debt to Lin Ostrom by making presentations to IASC on our ongoing Gabriola experiment. Shelagh Huston presented at the 2007 Annual IASC Meeting, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Heather Menzies at the 2010 Annual IASC Regional Conference, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Heather told us afterwards, “One of the main benefits of my having had a chance to attend the conference, and gain a bit of a profile by having been invited to present on the Gabriola Commons, is the people I met. Getting to know Elinor Ostrom was definitely the top of the list there. She is as down to earth and unassuming as the voice she brings to her book, Governing the Commons. What a treasure she is to the world, right when it needs someone like her…”.
Elinor Ostrom verified our Commons’ strong conviction that some vital aspects of human experience “do not fit in a dichotomous world of ‘the market’ and ‘the state’ ”. As described in her Nobel speech, we learned from her that it is “isolated, anonymous individuals” who damage the commons, and that what enables participants to sustain the common resource is “simply allowing communication, or ‘cheap talk’ ”.
Her 1990 book warned us clearly that: “All groups face internal conflicts or inter-group conflicts that can destroy the fundamental trust and reciprocity on which so much effective governance is based”, a vital lesson we have worked hard to heed. Another message our Commons seeks to illustrate is the conclusion of her Nobel acceptance speech, that “a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans”.
The Gabriola Commons will continue to honour Elinor Ostrom’s legacy by upholding the Commons Charter, by sustaining fundamental trust and reciprocity, and by sharing our Commons with the people of this island.
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