Elinor Ostrom

2 minute read
Rana Foroohar

She went to teach at Indiana University in 1965 because the school offered her husband a job in the political-science department. But Elinor Ostrom, who in 2009 became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, eventually became the headline act. Her work, which focused on how ordinary people who use natural resources like forests, fisheries and oil fields can manage them more smartly than companies or governments, has never been more timely. “After the TARP bailouts, and the devastation of democracies in Europe by financial technocrats, the world is beginning to appreciate what Elinor Ostrom has deeply, persistently and quietly been illuminating for nearly 50 years,” wrote Robert Johnson, director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, last year when Ostrom, who died June 12 at 78, was named one of the Time 100 most influential people. Unlike many economic stars, Ostrom thought bottom-up rather than top-down–she believed that citizens have “capacity and power” beyond those of governing bureaucracies and that individuals can make a big difference, even with the world’s big issues. At a time when nearly all our most pressing problems–from environmental degradation to rising inequality–require collective action, it’s a message that leaders around the world would be wise to remember, and to heed.

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