Start with the Human Scale- Elinor Ostrom

Guest Post by Lynn Jungwirth

I asked Fran Korten, who interviewed Elinor Ostrom (2009 Nobel Prize winner in economics) for “Yes Magazine”, about
the difficulties with “large landscape level planning”. This answer came

“Yes, there’s a role for large landscape level planning, but when you get
down to implementation, it’s got to be at smaller levels. As Lin puts it,
you’ve got to have decision making and implementation in nested tiers that
start at the human-scale level and stack up to the larger resource.”

Wow! “Starting at the human-scale level and stack up to the larger
resource.” We do it exactly opposite. Start with the National Level, then
the Forest Level, and then try to make the local level fit in with those
goals and constraints. Maybe we should invite Elinor Ostrom and her team to
work with this planning rule.

Excerpt from the “Yes” interview. Here’s the link.

Elinor Ostrom:
At the Workshop we’ve done experiments where we create an artificial form of
common property-such as an imaginary fishery or pasture, and we bring people
into a lab and have them make decisions about that property. When we don’t
allow any communication among the players, then they overharvest. But when
people can communicate, particularly on a face-to-face basis, and say,
“Well, gee, how about if we do this? How about we do that?” Then they can
come to an agreement.

Fran: But what about the “free-rider” problem-where some people abide by the
rules and some people don’t? Won’t the whole thing fall apart?

Elinor: Well if the people don’t communicate and get some shared norms and
rules, that’s right, you’ll have that problem. But if they get together and
say, “Hey folks, this is a project that we’re all going to have to
contribute to. Now, let’s figure it out,” they can make it work. For
example, if it’s a community garden, they might say, “Do we agree every
Saturday morning we’re all going to go down to the community garden, and
we’re going to take roll and we’re going to put the roll up on a bulletin
board?” A lot of communities have figured out subtle ways of making everyone
contribute, because if they don’t, those people are noticeable.

5 thoughts on “Start with the Human Scale- Elinor Ostrom”

  1. Lynn,

    Thanks for posting this, and for all of your thoughtful comments lately. I hope you will continue mixing it up with all of us.

    I’m a big fan of Ostrom obviously. Brilliant. One reason is because of the context in which she rightly emphasizes in her work. No magic bullets for her. That also means that some of her lessons from common pool resource management in various international settings cannot be simply re-packaged for U.S. federal land issues. Nor am I entirely certain that her work, or that of others in the workshop, are calling into question the necessity of national laws and standards for federal lands.

    That said, I’m all for learning lessons from the bottom up, and seeing how those national laws and standards either obstruct or facilitate these more grassroots initiatives.


  2. Thanks, Martin. Likewise, I’m a fan of Ostrom. And clearly repackaging is way too simple. The tension between setting national policy and direction for public lands and having that be informed by on the ground management realities…social, economic, ecologic, political….is quite real and quite different here than in pastoral africa. It appears to be difficult to mesh the inductive policy makers with the deductive policy makers, but we probably need both. And we need them in continuous dialogue. I’d just like to have a world class brain like her’s helping us think through what we’re doing.

    And then there’s my favorite Winston Churchill quote: “If you have thousands of regulations, you have anarchy.”

    • Yes, agreed. My hope is that the planning team will spend considerable time studying all of these place-based collaborative initiatives–which you know a lot about–and learn some lessons from them. I’m trying to do the same, so we could possibly merge the best of the bottom-up with the safety net and accountability provided by the top-down.

      As for all those laws and regulations, the thing is that so many of them actually dodge the tough issues–they tell us a lot about how to make particular decisions, and what to consider along the way, but not enough about what decisions have actually been made.

  3. Martin-

    I think not “re-packaging” her ideas, but careful consideration of how they do or do not fit our situation might be helpful. When I worked in DC, I worked with the State Dept and other agencies on intellectural property rights and biodiversity. Sometimes the land management agencies were on the side of the genetic information provider, not the user, and our view of the issue was more like developing countries.

    I think some folks say “these are public lands they belong to everyone and a person in New York City should have as much voice in their management as a person in the community next door, who is directly affected.” Which may be true in some legal sense based on the property right of the land being federally owned.

    However, if x oil company owned land in y country and did not listen to what local people wanted, we would think that was bad (I think). We would say that there is a special tie between local people and the land, etc.

    So it seems that there might be an inconsistency between what we believe should be the case in terms of justice from an international perspective, and in terms of our current property view of federal lands. All I am saying is that we should reflect on what Ostrom is saying and see if it is relevant to our planning situation.

  4. Lynn,
    Great to see your comment. Have any of Lin Ostrom’s team of researchesr taken a look at the kind of community forestry you and others have been pioneering? It would be great to have them integrate those approaches into their thinking and findings. It’s interesting that the structure of “nested tiers” is built into each national forest, so they are well set up for management at many levels. But most bureaucracies are also set up for mostly one-way communication — top to bottom — while what we need is rich, two-way communication. Anyway, Lynn — keep on keepin’ on. Fran


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