In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Erik Nordman, professor of natural resources management and adjunct professor of economics at Grand Valley State University, and affiliate scholar at Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop. Nordman discusses his new book, The Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom: Essential Lessons for Collective Action, which introduces Ostrom’s Nobel Prize–winning economic concepts to a broader audience. Nordman discusses his inspiration behind writing the book, how locally tailored solutions are essential to resource management today, and Ostrom’s research legacy in establishing the Bloomington School of Political Economy. Today is especially appropriate for reflections on Elinor Ostrom’s legacy—as we celebrate International Women’s Day.
Listen to the Podcast
- Ostrom’s insights formed through her intellectual journey: “If you’re reading Governing the Commons—which is a fantastic achievement and a landmark book—you might get the sense that these ideas just dropped into her head. But they’re really the culmination of 25 years of studying different resources, jumping from different topics—because she studied Los Angeles groundwater as a graduate student, but then was into municipal service provision and police studies, and then she came back to natural resources. So, in telling the story of how this unfolds, you get a sense of her intellectual journey.” (5:08)
- A decentralized approach to decisions and resource management: “[Ostrom’s] emphasis on polycentric governance—this decentralized approach to decisionmaking at multiple scales—she thought that such an approach could provide more locally tailored solutions and generate more creative policy exploration. This is what she was working on and writing about when she passed away in 2012. So, she didn’t live long enough to see the Paris Agreement emerge in 2015, but the Paris Agreement really does largely align with her decentralized, bottom-up approach to managing the climate commons.” (17:42)
- Civil society can collaborate on resource management: “[Outer space] is a good example of this collaborative approach. In the old days, it was just the United States and the Soviet Union and then, later, China. There really was a limited number of entities that were putting up satellites, for example. But now, that’s been democratized and also privatized. So, you have government actors, you have private-sector actors, you have nonprofit NGOs that are involved. That really shows how the whole range of civil society institutions can be engaged to manage a resource.” (22:12)
Top of the Stack
- The Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom: Essential Lessons for Collective Action by Erik Nordman
- The Cambridge Handbook of Commons Research Innovations edited by Sheila R. Foster and Chrystie F. Swiney
- Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School: Building a New Approach to Policy and the Social Sciences edited by Jayme Lemke and Vlad Tarko
- Fixing Niagara Falls: Environment, Energy, and Engineers at the World’s Most Famous Waterfall by Daniel MacFarlane
- Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
- Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future (RFF). I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. My guest today is Erik Nordman, professor of natural resources management and adjunct professor of economics at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, and an affiliate scholar at Indiana University's Ostrom Workshop.
Nordman has written on a wide variety of environmental topics—from urban stormwater management and land preservation to renewable energy. His work has also appeared in mass market publications, such as Quartz, the Conversation, and Bridge, which is a Michigan public affairs magazine.
The topic of our discussion today is a book of Erik's, published by Island Press in the summer of 2021, called The Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom: Essential Lessons for Collective Action. Many of our listeners will know that Elinor Ostrom was a Nobel Prize–winning political scientist, who was recognized for her work on understanding the so-called “commons,” including how players could jointly manage shared resources outside of typical free market or regulatory structures. She showed that, around the world, collective action is not only possible, but happening and even thriving, and that can be fostered in ways that continue to be critically important today. Stay with us.
Hi, Erik. Welcome to Resources Radio.
Erik Nordman: Hello. It's a pleasure to be here.
Kristin Hayes: Great. Well, it's very nice to be chatting with you today about your book. But before we dive into that, can I ask you to share a little bit more about you, about your background, about the type of research you do?
Erik Nordman: Sure. I've been a professor of natural resources management at Grand Valley State University since 2006. I earned my grad degrees at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. I have a master's degree in forest ecology, and my PhD is in resource policy and economics. So, I'm very interdisciplinary in the types of research that I do and the courses that I teach. I teach courses in the social dimensions of resource management, including natural resource policy and environmental economics.
Kristin Hayes: Well, you cover a lot of territory, which is great. And I think that may give me a little bit of a clue to the next question I'm going to ask you: You are clearly a fan of Elinor Ostrom. I'm assuming that's one of the reasons you chose to write a book about her. But how did you first decide to write a book that focused on her contributions?
Erik Nordman: That's a great question. I read Governing the Commons, her landmark 1990 book, when I was a graduate student, and I've taught about Ostrom's work in many of my classes, but it really wasn't until 2016 that I had an idea for a project and was going to use some of Ostrom's ideas to study that. The project, unfortunately, wasn't funded, and then I had a sabbatical coming up, and I thought, well, what am I going to do next for my sabbatical? And I thought, when I talk about this to my undergraduate students, I often have trouble finding a resource that's appropriate for them.
Ostrom herself wrote extensively. She wrote many books and articles and collaborated with a lot of folks. Other people have written great books about her, but they're aimed at a more academic audience. I thought that maybe I could write a book that introduces Ostrom's ideas to a broader audience—inspires them—and I could even bring that project that didn't get funded and make that into a chapter of the book.
Kristin Hayes: So, you were very interested in her contributions, but it seems like you were also interested in her life. And I guess I'd characterize it as the book is a bit genre-bending. As one of the back-book-cover quotes notes, the book is “part biography and part theoretical exposition.” So, in other words, readers learn a lot about Elinor Ostrom as a person, but they also learn a lot about the collective management of shared resources as a subject of intellectual interest. Why was it important to you to get both of those pieces in—her personal history and her academic pursuits—and how did they inform each other?
Erik Nordman: I was really inspired in writing by Elizabeth Kolbert's work. She's written Under a White Sky and The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes From a Catastrophe. I really liked that approach where Kolbert as a journalist talked to scientists in the field who are experts in this. So, I kind of wanted to tell the story of Ostrom's ideas from the perspective of the people in the communities that she studied: the farmers in Spain, the lobster harvesters in Maine, people that live in forest communities. That's kind of where the idea came from. And I think it helps humanize the story.
I think if you're just reading Governing the Commons—which is a fantastic achievement and a landmark book—you might get the sense that these ideas just dropped into her head. But they're really the culmination of 25 years of studying different resources, jumping from different topics—because she studied Los Angeles groundwater as a graduate student, but then was into municipal service provision and police studies, and then she came back to natural resources. So, in telling the story of how this unfolds, you get a sense of her intellectual journey.
Kristin Hayes: I think that's really important, and I like that emphasis on the accumulation of knowledge across all of these different fields—which I think, again, reflects your own diverse interests here and how that can actually lead to new insights in ways that maybe just staying in one lane your whole life doesn't. I really enjoyed, personally, the diversity of examples and also the interweaving of a little bit of her life story, which was an interesting one.
Erik Nordman: Yeah, and her life story really is significant. She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, in 2009. To some, this wasn't surprising at all: Ostrom was the cofounder of the Public Choice Society, and she collaborated with other Nobel laureates, like economic historian Douglass North and game theorist Reinhard Selten. But to others, it really was a surprise—like Paul Krugman, another Nobel Prize–winning economist, was pretty much unfamiliar with her work, but he did praise her for the award. But others were very dismissive and even insulting towards her.
Kristin Hayes: Do you think that had to do with her gender? Was it the fact that she was the first female, or was it about the body of work, and it felt so different from what had been sort of singled out in the economics profession beforehand? I'm sorry; that's a very provocative question—but I'll ask it.
Erik Nordman: I think it's a little bit of both. Ostrom was a political scientist, not an economist, and some folks definitely said and wrote on blogs and things that this is watering down the economics Nobel; it's just a generic social science. So, some economists were not really happy with that. Then there is a level of misogyny—I think we can say that. The irony is that Ostrom was rejected from UCLA's graduate program in economics back in the late 1950s and was only reluctantly accepted into the political science program, because political science hadn't had any female students in decades, so they required them to bring in a cohort of Ostrom and three other women.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. You mentioned that in the book. That's an important piece of context, too. She was pioneering for a long time; that's for sure. Well, let's talk for a bit about the various chapters of the book that cover different historical examples of collective action that either, I would say, informed or in some cases really embodied her research findings. Do you want to pick one of those, or one or two of those, to share with our listeners? As you note in the book, the idea of “lobster gangs” sounds particularly juicy, so feel free to tell us more about that one or any of the other examples that you highlight in the book.
Erik Nordman: Sure. Ostrom, in Governing the Commons, especially, talks about these different case studies that informed her work and led to the development of these design principles, these eight guidelines for sustaining a commons. She was a collector of these case studies from around the world. And this is where that interdisciplinary curiosity comes in. As a political scientist, she just stayed in her lane. The research from political science wasn't that expansive, but she was able to connect with folks in anthropology and game theorists and economics and sociology, forestry, and bring all these case studies together and create teams and collaborate. So, that was really important. One of the people that she collaborated with was a guy named Jim Acheson.
Dr. James Acheson was one of the first social scientists hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service and later became a professor at the University of Maine. And he coined that term, lobster gangs. He wrote a book called The Lobster Gangs of Maine. And just to be clear, he said that he did not mean gang to refer to anything criminal. It was more like a bunch, like a gang of lobster traps, or this gang of people from that particular harbor. Acheson's work showed how these lobster harvesters do not privatize their territory, because you’ve got to put your traps in a certain spot on the ocean bottom, and if people put their traps too close together, they can get tangled up. So you do have to establish some customary territory that they defend against one another and against newcomers.
They also work together to defend the harbor's territory against incursions from a neighboring harbor or an island. This way of self-organization was a really powerful example that Ostrom drew upon and really informed her work. She and Acheson became lifelong friends and colleagues. Acheson came to Indiana University to the Ostrom Workshop as a visiting scholar there to learn more about how to apply game theory and things like that to his work. It's really a great example of that community that Ostrom established there in Indiana.
Kristin Hayes: You referenced the kind of principles that she was distilling down from all of her work, and she spent considerable time (as you've noted, decades) trying to uncover what really makes these instances of collective action on natural resource management and other topics—what makes them possible. Can you talk us through some of those key lessons that she learned over the course of her career—what she distilled down?
Erik Nordman: Yeah. She presents these eight design principles for managing a commons in Governing the Commons. And she's very clear that these are design principles—they're not rules. They seem to generally work. They're not limited to eight; there might be more that people might discover. But they include things like having physical and social boundaries that are clearly defined. So, who has access to this resource and who does not? Another rule is that there are locally tailored rules for defining access and consumption. So, one-size-fits-all approaches generally don't work. Individuals who are most affected by the rules can participate in rulemaking.
Again, self-governance is a core principle of the Bloomington School of Political Economy that she helped start. The fourth one is: Resource monitors are accountable to the resource users. This really gets to questions of trust and reciprocity—that if we're going to share this resource, we both need to have a shared understanding of how many lobsters are left on the harbor floor, or how much water is being withdrawn from the groundwater aquifer, and we have to be able to trust that information.
The fifth one is that there are graduated penalties for rule breakers. You don't want to kick somebody out of the harbor gang, for example, for their first offense. They might get a note, they might get snubbed at the grocery store or the bar for the first infraction, but then there will be increasing penalties if they keep putting their traps in the wrong spot, for example. The sixth design principle is that conflict management institutions are accessible. You don't want to legalize this. You don't want to be suing people in court. You want to be able to resolve those conflicts through an acceptable means, kind of in the moment or in the short term.
And then finally—or, seventh—is that authorities recognize a right to self-organize that the law enforcement—the formal institutions—kind of give the community space to work out their resource conflicts and self-govern their resources. And then, finally, for complex systems, they're organized into layers of nested governance. This is a concept that Ostrom called “polycentricity.” It's a lot like federalism in our national government, where you have nested layers of decisionmaking, and it allows for policy experimentation—having locally tailored solutions and things like that.
Kristin Hayes: Can I ask you a little bit more about trust?
Erik Nordman: Yes.
Kristin Hayes: I can certainly understand why that was very central to making any of these arrangements work. Does Dr. Ostrom's research reveal any of the ways that that trust is actually built or maintained in a way that allows the collective action to flourish?
Erik Nordman: Yes. This was a big topic for her—very important. She often used the phrase, "Nobody wants to be a sucker." Nobody wants to be taken advantage of, so if I'm going to hold back on my resource consumption, whether it's pumping groundwater, for example, or harvesting lobsters, if I'm going to hold back on that for the good of the resource, I have to be able to trust everyone else, that they're going do the same thing. And if we all trust each other, then we can have a sustainable harvest, but if that trust breaks down—well, I don't want to be a sucker. I'm not going to take a hit on my income while everyone else is just out there harvesting as many lobsters or pumping as much groundwater as they want. And then we're going to have this competitive race to extract. So, trust is really central to all of this—trust and reciprocity.
Kristin Hayes: All right. If I can pivot—and perhaps the most important question I'm going to ask you all day, then, is, How can we apply her considerable insights to today's world, where we are a little bit low on trust in a lot of different ways, but we face a lot of challenges that require us to manage the commons and in creative ways? What are some of the challenges out there now that would strongly benefit from these design principles that you've laid out and the type of collective action that Dr. Ostrom knew was possible?
Erik Nordman: Once you start seeing these collective-action situations in one spot, you see them popping up all over. It's really eye-opening. Ostrom spent most of her career studying local commons—things like fisheries, forests, and irrigation communities. But especially after she won the Nobel Prize, she really started to shift her focus towards global commons—things like climate change. If we've got this global commons, does that follow the same set of eight design principles? Can we apply that? It wasn't even clear if it made sense. So, that's really what she was working on at the end of her life.
She passed away in 2012. But she showed that the climate system does have many attributes of a commons. She and her colleagues were skeptical of a single legally binding climate treaty. Her emphasis on polycentric governance—this decentralized approach to decision making at multiple scales—she thought that such an approach could provide more locally tailored solutions and generate more creative policy exploration. This is what she was working on and writing about when she passed away in 2012. So, she didn't live long enough to see the Paris Agreement emerge in 2015, but the Paris Agreement really does largely align with her decentralized, bottom-up approach to managing the climate commons.
Instead of a one-size-fits-all treaty, countries voluntarily make nationally determined contributions to reduce their emissions. These commitments are ratcheted up over time. And part of this was to avoid ratification in the US Senate—so that legally binding treaty was never quite on the table at that point. But this bottom-up approach seems to be working so far, and it seems to be our best hope for averting further climate catastrophes.
Kristin Hayes: There's a chapter in the book, as well, that talks about space—that is, outer space—representing another extra global commons that we're eventually going to have to figure out how to navigate as an international community. So, anything that you'd want to share about that particular challenge?
Erik Nordman: Yes. And Ostrom probably would not … space was not on her radar. It might be kind of a pun, but this was not a topic that she was particularly interested in—but it's one that shows how scholars at the Ostrom Workshop and around the world are still applying her ideas to novel and emerging topics. And space is really one of those.
We've got different types of space resources: there's orbital space, where our satellites operate. That's a global commons. It is not legally defined as a global commons, which the lawyers get very touchy about, but it does fit the economists' definition of a commons: That it's depletable, but it's also hard to exclude people from using. And if a satellite is operating in one orbit, another satellite can't be in the same spot at the same time; otherwise, we're going to have a collision. So, that resource needs to be carefully managed and coordinated, or else we're going to have crashes, which do happen. You get space junk—debris that's just flying all over and that can create cascading collisions and could ultimately, if it gets out of control, just destroy the entire orbital space. It's called the Kessler Syndrome, after a NASA scientist that came up with it.
So that's an example of space as a global commons. But then there are other aspects, like who owns the moon, or who has access to use resources on the moon or on mineral-laden asteroids? Later this week, on March 4, a rocket body is expected to crash into the moon. It's an old, spent rocket body that was launched by China, I think, several years ago. And it's just been kind of drifting. Now it's been caught in the gravitational pull of the moon, and it's going to crash on March 4. So, another timely example of how space is an important resource, but if we're not careful, it can be depleted like other commons. And Ostrom's research is kind of pointing the way on how we can collaborate at a global level to manage this important resource.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. It's strange to think of space as sort of a limited resource, but in the context of the things that you're talking about—orbits, and just competition for specific parts of space—then that becomes very critical. It seems to me that it'd be very difficult to build a small community that could focus on this, and this really cries out for sort of nested layers of management. Is there anything else you can draw from her work about how the management of space might look?
Erik Nordman: Yes. This is a good example of this collaborative approach. In the old days, it was just the United States and the Soviet Union and then, later, China. There really was a limited number of entities that were putting up satellites, for example. But now, that's been democratized and also privatized. So, you have government actors, you have private-sector actors, you have nonprofit NGOs that are involved. So, that really shows how the whole range of civil society institutions can be engaged to manage a resource.
This is in contrast with the wisdom of the twentieth century. The conventional wisdom was that, well, a commons will be ruined unless you either privatize it and let the market figure it out, or have governments impose regulations on actors. Because the thinking was that the resource-using community could not come together to govern themselves. Ostrom said that's not true. There are thousands of cases that she documented, where they had come together—and that is very much what we see in the outer space realm today.
Kristin Hayes: That's a great encapsulation of her legacy in the field of economics, sort of going against some conventional wisdom about what options are available for problem solving. Are there other ways in which you would characterize that legacy? She wasn't an economist, as you've mentioned, and as you wrote about in the book, but she clearly did leave a significant legacy on the field. And, as a bunch of resource economists here at RFF, of course that's of particular interest to us and many in our listening audience. So, how would you characterize that legacy?
Erik Nordman: I should also say that she collaborated extensively with her husband Vincent. They were really a team. Vincent was the more theoretical political scientist, and Elinor was the practical one, but they really did work as a team together. A lot of their research focused on institutions, which are kind of like the rules of the game that guide repetitive behavior. And that institutional approach really is that crossover between economics and policy: In political science, they call it “political economy.” In economics, they call it “institutional economics.” But that's where economics and policy meet in this—defining the rules of the game. And the Ostroms and their colleagues at that Ostrom Workshop had their own way of thinking about this.
It's been named the Bloomington School of Political Economy, to contrast it with the Rochester School and the Virginia School. So, the people in Bloomington have their own approach to studying these problems, looking at it through an institutional lens. The Ostroms' legacy really is in establishing this global community of scholars. They invite people from all around the world to come and learn in Bloomington at Indiana University, like I did when I was a visiting scholar on my sabbatical. And they called their research center a workshop very intentionally. Vincent was an amateur woodworker, so he very much was in tune with himself being an apprentice to a master carpenter. And he learned the trade and practiced this.
He wanted to take that same approach to the intellectual community that they started in Indiana. So they intentionally called it a workshop, where young people or established professionals like myself can come and learn as an apprentice and learn the skills of their trade. I think that sense of community—an intentional community—is really powerful, and that's probably their biggest legacy.
Kristin Hayes: That's a great one. I think education is an exceptionally powerful legacy overall. And then, as you say, to couch it in the sense of: Anyone at any point in their career can still benefit from learning from someone who's been thinking about this for a while. Yeah, I think that's a wonderful legacy and a great way to sort of wrap up our discussion of her life.
So again, I want to recommend to our listeners—before we get to Erik's Top of the Stack—I will just remind listeners about the book. It's called, The Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom: Essential Lessons for Collective Action. It's very readable. It does have this wonderful mix of intellectual content. You learn a lot about the issues at play and the issues that she studied, but you also learn a lot about her, and it's great.
I really appreciated the chance to talk through it with you, Erik. And so, quickly, let's close the podcast with our regular feature, Top of the Stack.
Top of the Stack is a pretty flexible opportunity to recommend some more good content to our listeners. Certainly, we'd welcome recommendations on this topic, but really, anything that's on the top of your stack is sort of fair game. So tell us: What's on the top of your stack?
Erik Nordman: Sure. For readers who want to learn more about Elinor Ostrom and commons research, there are two fantastic books that recently came out. One is The Cambridge Handbook on Commons Research Innovations, edited by Sheila Foster and Chrystie Swiney. And I believe Sheila has been on some RFF environmental justice podcasts and webinars recently, so your listeners might be familiar with her work.
And Jayme Lemke and Vlad Tarko have a book called, Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School: Building a New Approach to Policy and the Social Sciences. Both of these are geared toward more academic audiences, but they really get into … Beyond just the natural resource commons that I kind of focus on—because that's my background—they really get into why her work really resonates across the political science field.
And then I'll give you one last recommendation, and that is a book I'm reading right now, called, Fixing Niagara Falls: Environment, Energy, and Engineers at the World's Most Famous Waterfall. This is really interesting. I've been to Niagara Falls myself a bunch of times and had no idea on how engineered the whole system is. Water diverted for power generation, different elements in place to spread the water out so nobody notices that up to 75 percent of the water can be diverted for power generation. Really remarkable. And that's by Daniel MacFarlane.
Kristin Hayes: Great. All right. Well, those are some excellent recommendations and we'll be sure to include links to those on the page, along with the recording of our conversation. So, thank you again. It's been a pleasure and hopefully talk to you again soon.
Erik Nordman: My pleasure, Kristin. Thanks a lot.
Kristin Hayes: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Learn how to support Resources for the Future at rff.org/support. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future (RFF). RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.