Time Magazine Names First Female Nobel Prize-Winner in Economics to 100 Most Influential List
In 2009, Elinor Ostrom was the co-recipient, with Oliver Williamson, of the Nobel Prize in Economics. The fact that Ostrom is the first and only woman to win the econ prize is a testimony to the backwardness of the field. Many women have deserved to be honored, as economist Arjun Jayadev pointed out in an eloquent essay: "Elinor Ostrom and the Poverty of Economics." But, as Jayadev makes clear, the rampant sexism of the profession has unfortunately resulted in the sidelining of much important work.
Ostrom's prize was a first step, and Time's recognition of the significance of her contributions seems to signal that we are finally getting somewhere. As I have often remarked in the face of all-male economic panels and male-dominated conferences: "A conversation about economics solely between men is not a conversation: it's a frat party."
The world will be a much better place when that particular party is over.
Ostrom, a renowned political scientist, has garnered attention for her distinguished work analyzing the economic governance of common pool resources like water, forests, and public spaces. As economist Rob Johnson, head of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) wrote in Time's profile:
"Virtually all the world's most urgent problems require collective action. Be it environmental protection, the international financial system or the dimensions of inequality, Ostrom's work sheds light on the direction society must follow to avoid misuse of shared resources, 'the tragedy of the commons.' Ostrom, 78, has done field studies of the world's fisheries, roamed with shepherds in Swiss pastures and trudged around the Los Angeles water basin to distill the essentials of harnessing cooperation to overcome selfish interests."
Cooperation over selfish interests. How's that for an insight?
Ostrom started out studying cooperation, problem solving and the long-term strategies of local communities in protecting and using resources in her native California while working on her doctoral dissertation. She looked at how people had joined forces to protect groundwater resources from increasing salination in ways that had been useful over generations. When she looked around the world, she found more and more evidence of successful community resource management that derived from local action.
Ostrom's work culminated in her book 'Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action' which uses various case studies to illustrate how the tragedy of the commons has been avoided in communities around the globe. She uses mathematics and game theory to argue that the management of common property should depend on local circumstances, and not be limited to a one-size-fits-all approach. The very same rules which help to provide efficiency in the use of resources, she argues, are the ones that foster community and engagement.
Let's hope that the conversation started by Ostrom will continue and that we'll have more emphasis on the local, human element in economic systems. Her work is critical to debates about our resource use and the future of, well, Life on Earth.