AAPSS, Fellows|

[vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_column_text]elinor-ostrom-1.299.201.sRobert Dahl had a faith that people could govern themselves, if one was able to enable them to create the kind of complex structures that sometimes we call federal systems but sometimes we call multi-level systems. We are still working on how to develop a good scientific language for dealing with systems that exist within systems that exist within systems. I think the social sciences are now evolving so that we are slowly but surely developing methods to understand complexity rather than trying to eliminate it. For a long time, in the effort to preserve biodiversity, we attempted to eliminate institutional diversity. Indigenous people throughout the whole world, who had been stewards of forests, water systems, and fisheries were moved out. There were plans made in national capitals to create preservation areas. We have maps galore showing preservation areas all over the world. Scholars have done extensive research in water and forestry resources and some of those preservation areas do work. Unfortunately, many of them are “paper parks.” In the effort to impose a “paper park” on locals, we have moved them out. We do not listen to them, and we move them to the big city. Then, we have bureaucrats who are in charge. Surprise, surprise, all sorts of other folks move into the paper parks and harvest. Some of our remotely sensed images show massive deforestation in parks where there is not a firm, legitimate foundation.

So instead of just presuming that governments govern–which Dahl did not, he did have a deep understanding that people have to govern and we have to be developing complex institutions to enable them to govern–we must now be moving on. Context makes a difference. Context includes at least some level close to the individual, to a community, to a family, to an urban area, as well as larger and larger units. Some people think I am for only ‘small is beautiful,’ but I have seen some small institutions that were not beautiful with elites dominating. So small by itself is not beautiful. Large and simple by itself is not beautiful either!

Our problem is how to craft rules at multiple levels that enable humans to adapt, learn, and change over time so that we are sustaining the very valuable natural resources that we inherited so that we may be able to pass them on. I am deeply indebted to the indigenous peoples in the U.S. who had an image of seven generations being the appropriate time to think about the future. I think we should all reinstate in our mind the seven-generation rule. When we make really major decisions, we should ask not only what will it do for me today, but what will it do for my children, my children’s children, and their children’s children into the future.

Elinor Ostrom is Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science at Indiana University.
Ostrom is the the 2008 AAPSS Robert A. Dahl Fellow. These remarks were delivered upon accepting her Fellowship on May 8, 2008.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.
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