The Woman Who Just Might Save the Planet and Our Pocketbooks
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Fran: Why were Netting’s findings so surprising to you?
Elinor: I had grown up thinking that land was something that would always move to private property. I had done my dissertation on groundwater in California, so I was familiar with the management of water as a commons. But when I read Netting, I realized that when there are “spotty” land environments, it really doesn’t make sense to put up fences and have small private plots.
Fran: Lin, if you were to have a sit-down session with someone with a big influence on natural resources policy—say Robert Zoellick, head of the World Bank, or Ken Salazar, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, what would be your advice?
Elinor: No panaceas! We tend to want simple formulas. We have two main prescriptions: privatize the resource or make it state property with uniform rules. But sometimes the people who are living on the resource are in the best position to figure out how to manage it as a commons.
Fran: Is there a role for government in those situations?
Elinor: We need institutions that enable people to carry out their management roles. For example, if there’s conflict, you need an open, fair court system at a higher level than the people’s resource management unit. You also need institutions that provide accurate knowledge. The United States Geological Survey is one that I point to repeatedly. They don’t come in and try to make proposals as to what you should do. They just do a really good job of providing accurate scientific knowledge, particularly for groundwater basins such as where I did my Ph.D. research years ago. I’m not against government. I’m just against the idea that it’s got to be some bureaucracy that figures everything out for people.
Fran: How important is it that there is a match between a governing jurisdiction and the area of the resource to be managed?
Elinor: To manage common property you need to create boundaries for an area at a size similar to the problem the people are trying to cope with. But it doesn’t need to be a formal jurisdiction. Sometimes public officials don’t even know that the local people have come to some agreements. It may not be in the courts, or even written down. That is why sometimes public authorities wipe out what local people have spent years creating.
Fran: You’ve done your research on small- and medium-sized natural resource jurisdictions. How about the global commons? We have the problems of climate change and oceans that are dying. Are there lessons from your work that are relevant to these massive problems we’re now facing?
Elinor: I really despair over the oceans. There is a very interesting article in Science on the “roving bandit.” It is so tempting to go along the coast and scoop up all the fish you can and then move on. With very big boats, you can do that. I think we could move toward solving that problem, but right now there are not many instrumentalities for doing that.
Regarding global climate change, I’m more hopeful. There are local public benefits that people can receive at the same time they’re generating benefits for the global environment. Take health and transportation as an example. If more people would walk or bicycle to work and use their car only when they have to go some distance, then their health would be better, their personal pocketbooks would be better, and the atmosphere would be better. Of course, if it’s just a few people, it won’t matter, but if more and more people feel “This is the kind of life I should be living,” that can substantially help the global problem. Similarly, if we invest in re-doing the insulation of a lot of buildings, we can save money as well as help the global environment. Yes, we want some global action but boy, if we just sit around and wait for that? Come on!