In 2009 Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics. This was for her work on the concept of commons, collectively owned property from Swiss Alpine pastures to indigenous rainforests to free software.
Her work on the commons was inspired by her reaction to a lecture by Garrett Hardin, who coined the phrase “tragedy of the commons.” He argued that shared property would always be overused and abused, but his real target was overpopulation. Although he had carried out no actual research, he insisted that in the absence of authoritarian control, a “commons in breeding” would destroy the environment. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
For her doctorate, Ostrom had studied how communities organized to sustain water in Los Angeles West Basin, by rationing water use, to stop salt water from being sucked in the sea. listening to Hardin she realized that she had studied something he claimed was impossible, a successful commons.
In a 2010 interview, she recalled:
“That gave me insights into people, some of whom had spent 20, 30 years trying to solve this tough problem. There had not been one thing they did. They did a number of different things, including building a barrier against the ocean coming by putting water down through wells—very ingenious. I didn’t know I was studying the commons.
“[Hardin argued that such cooperation was impossible but] he really was worried about population. He indicated that every man and every woman should be sterilized after they have one child. He was very serious about it….
“I was somewhat taken aback. ‘My theory proves that we should do this,’ and people said, ‘Well, don’t you think that that’s a little severe?’ ‘No! That’s what we should do, or we’re sunk.’
“Well, he, in my mind, became a totalitarian. I, thus, had seen a real instance where his theory didn’t work.”
Ostrom tracked case studies of both successful and failed commons to learn how self-governing ecologically sustainable systems could be built. While she came from a liberal background, she showed that economics extends beyond the market. To put it simply, she examined the nuts and bolts of non-monetary economics.