Economics Nobel Prize winner influenced Alaska, resources

Political scientist studies management of common resources

Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2009

ANCHORAGE - The first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics also has bolstered the credibility of Alaskans who worked for decades to instill the concept of public ownership of the state's natural resources.

Elinor Ostrom, 76, and Oliver E. Williamson of the University of California Berkeley shared this year's economics prize, announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Monday.

A political scientist at Indiana University, Ostrom studies the management of common resources, like fish, grazing lands and forests. She shed light on examples around the world - including Alaska's fisheries - in which people have worked cooperatively to sustain their resources rather than destroying them.

Her husband and academic collaborator, Vincent Ostrom, is also well-regarded in Alaska. As a hired consultant in the mid-1950s, he was a key figure in the drafting of the Alaska Constitution's natural resource article, which enshrined the idea that the residents of Alaska - rather than the state as a political entity - own the state's mineral wealth.

That idea has carried forward into the distribution of state oil income as Permanent Fund dividend checks, the management of its fisheries and even the settlement of Native land claims, said Mead Treadwell of Anchorage, who chairs the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

The Ostroms met after Alaska's statehood in 1959. Vincent was a professor and Elinor was a student, and they married and became lifelong academic collaborators at Indiana University, according to Charles Wohlforth, an Anchorage writer who met Elinor while he was working on a book project.

She has written many academic papers refuting the conventional wisdom that people inexorably exploit public resources - like grazing lands -for their own need, and that the only way to keep those resources from obliteration is through private or government control of the land.

"She showed it doesn't have to be that way," Treadwell said.

Ostrum's work isn't about rebelling against authority. It's about working together to solve problems, according to Wohlforth.

He is writing a book, titled "The Fate of Nature," that describes Ostrum as a grandmotherly woman with a powerful intellect, who bustles around her Indiana University research institute effusing about the work of its international scholars.

The theme of Wohlforth's book, scheduled for publication by St. Martin's Press next June, is whether people can work together to save the environment or are destined to fail. In a draft chapter, he describes Vincent Ostrum's work as a Stanford University consultant for the state constitutional convention.

The delegates working on the natural resources article asked Ostrum to write a draft of the article. "The words copied from the board at the end of that day's session remain at the heart of Alaska's Constitution," according to Wohlforth's draft.

The Ostrom's work gained a new fan base in Alaska during Walter Hickel's stints as governor and U.S. secretary of Interior.

Throughout his political career, Hickel was a big proponent of Alaska as an "owner state" that managed its own resources. Hickel spent time with the Ostrums in Indiana during a 2002 conference, after his time in public office. The two scholars helped run a conference in Alaska the following year, Treadwell said.

Hickel published his own treatise on Alaska's public lands, "Crisis In the Commons: The Alaska Solution," the same year. He used the same publisher that the Ostroms have used for some of their books, California-based ICS Press.

"What we pioneered in Alaska is the resource-rich commons. How does that benefit the public and not just (multinationals)," said Malcolm Roberts, a former Hickel aide.

Elinor Ostrum's work over the decades has focused on examples of public ownership of resources all over the world -from Swiss alpine pastures to Japanese rice paddies. Her work shows that with proper environmental controls, economic stability and equal shares among the users, people working together can sustain for centuries the resources they depend on, said Treadwell, who became familiar with her research when Hickel appointed him to run the Institute of the North, an Anchorage research center.

In a brief session with reporters in Indiana on Monday, Ostrom said "What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people involved - as opposed to just having somebody in Washington ... make a rule."

The fact that the Nobel committee gave her this prize gives a big boost to this field of work, Treadwell said.

And, "I think she gives credence to the arguments that Alaskans make for local control of our resources," he said.

Trending this week:


© 2018. All Rights Reserved.  | Contact Us