Saturday, October 17, 2009

Common practice

The only other Nobel award to garner any kind of attention after Obama's Peace Prize was the shared prize in economics to Elinor Ostrom. What got the media excited was the fact that she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize in economics, rather than the work that was being rewarded. I was amused to hear her respond to a bizarre and faintly patronising interviewer on BBC Radio 4 with a polite, steely charm.

Her work is an answer to the conclusions drawn by Garrett Hardin in his influential 1968 article The Tragedy of the Commons (reproduced in pdf form here) that,
...the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.
Instead, Ostrom found that the very rational self interest that Hardin felt would lead to the ecological devastation of common property could, and did, result in communal and collective self-regulation and ecological conservation.

Her work is an interesting critique of a spectrum of thought from the Right Libertarian's advocacy of enclosed private property organised through market exchanges to the statist advocacy of wholly collective ownership. Instead, it is perfectly possible, under certain conditions and in conjunction with other models, for ecologically sustainable production to be maintained through communally owned common property.

There are many reasons why I find this attractive, but one is the relationship it has to my own field of adult education. The history of adult education is a fascinating one, it has always been a social movement and a cause, rather than merely a service. It's origins lie in radical movements, working class self-help, Victorian philanthropy and idealists in the universities. Government funding enabled it to grow and flourish in the post-war period. And then it became an expendable luxury. Funding was withdrawn and what remained was directed towards employment skills. The provision that generations had build up was lost. And so, once again, it is reinventing itself through self-organisation and collective action. What this has meant is the loss of a comprehensive and easily accessible system, the gain is in ownership and control. And, perhaps, permanence, as adult education becomes the common property of those who use it.

1 comment:

John said...

Her books went straight onto my Wish List. I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of her but always found the Tragedy of the Commons argument spurious, to say the least. Cheers.