Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Science, studied cases around the world in which communities successfully regulated common resources (like forests or fisheries) use through cooperation. The research overturned the conventional wisdom about the need for government regulation of public resources.
She contests the theory of the “Tragedy of the commons”, in which people would be doomed to conflict due to scarcity of resources. For example, in a lake with few fish, people would tend to fish as much as possible, without thinking about the needs of other residents and the ecosystem as a whole. Thus, as a result in a short time the lake would no longer have fish. According to this theory people would fish as much as they could, and they would be unable to talk personally and address the situation, because there would not be third parties (government, for example) to enforce the decision.
However, what Ostrom found in field research was that when people could (and wanted!) to talk and to gain the trust of others, reaching cooperation, they prospered mutually! She searched several examples and analyzed small societies, which instead of competing with each other for the same resources until extinction, learned to cooperate to survive. Her work shows that, in many cases, societies are able to prosper by creating alternatives to resolve conflicts of interest, respecting the other, and ensuring common resources conservation.
Nevertheless, Ostrom cautions that this does not mean that people will always resolve conflicts. But the theory of the “Tragedy of the commons” was that people would never solve, and she succeeded in demonstrating that often people solve. According to her, in many cases people fare better than government or private bodies, but not always. She points out that there is no single standard to reach a solution; people need to learn to deal with the variety of problems they face.
But her tips regarding the communication between people and mutual trust as success factors for cooperation, already represent an excellent starting point, don’t they!?
For more see the video of her Nobel Prize Lecture:
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