A breakthrough for the commons came in 2009 when Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics. The first woman awarded this honor, the Indiana University political scientist not only made history but also helped debunk widespread notions that the commons inevitably leads to tragedy. In 50 years of research from Nepal to Kenya to Switzerland to Los Angeles, she has shown that commonly held resources will not be destroyed by overuse if there is a system in place to manage how they are shared.
The most effective approach to protect commons is what she calls “polycentric systems,” which operate “at multiple levels with autonomy at each level.” The chief virtue and practical value of this structure is it helps establish rules that “tend to encourage the growth of trust and reciprocity” among people who use and care for a particular commons. This was the focus of her Nobel Lecture in Stockholm, which she opened by stressing a need for “developing new theory to explain phenomena that do not fit in a dichotomous world of ‘the market’ and ‘the state.’”