Sage Advice for Occupy? from Nobel winner Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom receives the Nobel PrizeDr. Elinor Ostrom, 2009 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics for her 30+ years of research and study of commons* management, is joined by many other commons supporters in saying that the “tragedy of the commons” is that of the unmanaged or unsuccessfully managed commons.  What we have now is an entire paradigm managed for the 1% that is a tragedy for the 99% and the Earth.

*The commons can be defined as follows: Commons, n., gifts of nature and society; Commons are the wealth we inherit or create together and must pass on, undiminished or enhanced, to future generations; a sector of the economy that complements and counterweights the corporate sector; commons governance provides a check and balance to the corporate drive for profit and undue influence on government.

Some examples of commons we want to protect ~ clean air and water, healthy forests and ecosystems, good schools and health care, and strong diverse  local economies including open access to information, accessible transportation, sustainable manufacturing and energy production, healthy food production, and especially monetary systems that benefit the whole (not the few) …

In this sense, the Occupy movement is a commons:  It is creating value, sharing information, attempting to balance government and business excess.  What more might Occupy do to become a well-managed and effective commons?  How can the movement collaborate to transform our systems to provide immense value for all, including future generations?

Ostrom’s 8 design principles to govern commons was recently printed in Yes! Magazine.  Many, if not all, of these commons design principles have been shown to be present in the best managed and long term sustainable community endeavors across the globe.  They provide good guidelines for governance of Occupy projects everywhere.  These principles ensure that the new processes and institutions we create to protect our communities and the resources upon which we depend are sustainable and just.

1. Define clear group boundaries.

 2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

 3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

 4. Make sure the rulemaking rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.


Read on for key questions that Occupy can ask relating to these 8 commons principles, along with some outstanding examples of commons management models  for  sustainability, sharing and justice…

Ostrom’s 8 Design Principles for Well Managed Commons…

1. Define clear group boundaries.

Who gets to make decisions for whom?  Who gets to benefit from community created value or local resources?   Who is a legitimate stakeholder of any commons and who, if any, should be excluded?

Since so many decisions  made by governments and big business are affecting the 99%, maybe we need new models to enable decision-making closer to legitimate stakeholders and their affected resources, so that policy and legislation is truly by and for the people… not by and for distant or monied interests.  Occupy assemblies around the globe are modeling this via the many modes for deliberative democratic decision-making for internal operations and collective action.

A next step may be gathering our communities to write our own legislation… Occupy the Law!

Example: Right to self-govern is given lip-service in many countries, but the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund,, shows citizens from Bolivia, to Ecuador, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania how to write their own ordinances for legislation by and for the people, challenging corporate influence in constitutional law.  CELDF also provides roving low-cost Democracy Schools for Occupy teach-ins on reclaiming self-governance for communities that want to protect and improve their local quality of life.

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

What does the community need?  What is lacking or being degraded?  What of value needs to be preserved?

Example: Each community and every commons is unique, so guidelines for protection and decisions for management should be tied directly to each locality.  Occupy has a unique opportunity to develop these conversations and ideas locally, to cooperatively share information and models across boundaries and between scales, and to thus form collaborative associations towards positive wide-scale change for people and planet.  A whole sourcebook of local commons management projects from around the world is available and downloadable for free.  A Sourcebook on Property Rights and Collective Action for Sustainable Development was a highlighted resource at the most recent Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of theCommons (IASC), held in HyderabadIndia.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

The best designed deliberative democratic processes allow the wisdom of the crowd to emerge.  Do the decision-making processes ensure some few don’t dominate or benefit unduly?  Is community and resource security sought while value depletion/ resource destruction is not tolerated?

Example: One method for modifying rules is participatory budgeting, funding those things which serve the community, defunding those things that serve only special interests or negatively impact community health and stability.  For example, the City of Belo Horizonte, Brazil may be the only city in the world to effectively eliminate hunger and greatly improve local food production and security through prioritizing a municipal subsidy for growing, processing and distribution of food by local producers and users.  The people of Belo allocated 2% of their city budget for food security programs, and the investment has paid big dividends to all residents…providing secure markets for local farmers and  access to local nutritious food for all.

See this 11 minute film high-lighting Belo’s efforts to create a society where no one lacks access to healthy food:

The City that beat hunger: Belo Horizonte wins the 2009 Future Policy Award

4. Make sure the rulemaking rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

Do those who govern or enjoy business privileges support best practices for the needs of the vast majority in the community, including the long-term health of local ecosystems?

Either way, citizens can claim their sovereignty to create  commons-based institutions for social cohesion and resource protection outside of direct government and business influence.  Citizens demanding government recognition to ensure checks and balances between government, business interest, and the 99% are claiming the sovereignty that is implicit in the sense that without the commons — people and their resources — government and business could not exist.

Occupying and changing the law may be one necessary step, but often we also need to ask how can we change the way we manage certain commons?

In order to create the most social cohesion in ways that work for the vast majority, do we need to change the rules for the management of our water or food systems? healthcare systems? education systems? energy systems? And even our monetary system?

Example: As the Arab Spring helped blaze the path for the Occupy Movement, so too the creation of a new form of commons-based consultation is being developed in the Middle East via designed deliberative democracy.  Through the creation of a social charter process, driven foremost by and for the people through the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) Forum,  the respect and participation of authorities across the region is being compelled.  See the initiating goals and directives of this historic consultative document, the West Asia – North Africa Social Charter here.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

Whatever system is developed, setting clear guidelines for use and operations is necessary.  Then the questions are, how to ensure transparency of  actions and information flows to stakeholders?  In other words, is monitoring for progress and transgression enabled?

Example: When many communities use and depend upon a regional resource, deliberative processes are a good way to ensure support for developing rules and guidelines for sustainable use, including means to ensure transparency and just sharing.   Such is the case with the Great Lakes Commons Charter process.  Across the world, water is being privatized at an astounding rate.  Thanks to the recent UN recognition that water and access to it is a human right, perhaps water privatization can be reversed around the world.  Still, without good monitoring, there will be the temptation to steel, enclose or collaterally damage this dwindling resource if communities are not vigilant.

The world will be watching this Great Lakes regional charter process closely to see what can be learned from the  hundreds of communities, including indigenous tribes, across two nations — Canada and the U.S — that will work together to develop guidelines and rules for this surprisingly non-renewable glacial resource.  The long term goal is the development of an internationally recognized Commons Trust for the Great Lakes, it’s main purpose to ensure that these globally-recognized ecological gems will be preserved in good health for current and future generations.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

Is this being considered as the guidelines for participation in a commons are developed?  Are sanctions designed to, first, encourage learning about and support of common goals/ common good?  Are further sanctions or exclusion scaled appropriately to protect the whole and provide opportunities for reparation?

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

Conflicts and disputes are a natural process in groups, especially around shared value/ resources.  Where are the best functioning groups/ projects?  What can they share to teach Occupy about conflict resolution?  What are the lessons learned in the failures?  How can we develop mechanisms to address disputes and conflict creatively, early and often?

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Interconnection is the key concept here.  How can Occupy build it’s responsibility, power and influence via mutual support and cooperation, local to global?  How can Occupy prevent the privatization of resources and social and ecological systems from the local to the global scale?  And conversely, how can Occupy empower local to global models that support each community at the level of their home commons while not allowing the degradation of anyone’s home commons?

This is an especially challenging question when one considers that many global commons such as the arctic, sea bed minerals, the broadcast spectrum or atmosphere are currently unmanaged and thus literally “up for grabs”, to the tune of trillions of dollars of commercial and industrial profit each year… and much ecological devastation.  If these global commons were managed for the benefit of all humanity and the earth, in trust, the resources available for sustainable development, ecological restoration and enforcement would be sufficient to cover the needs of all.

Example: One amazing all-win model addresses the need for equitably managing the global atmosphere commons and thus fairly addressing the climate change crises.  Many groups around the globe are working on this, and the Irish think tank, Feasta (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) has some of the most inclusive ideas.  The key Ostrom-identified concept here is the need to build responsibility for governing the common resource of our atmosphere in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.  Ie How can we simultaneously move towards green energy while we contract our carbon usage and converge on equitable use (video), esp considering quickly developing nations and victims of climate change in the most struggling nations?

The Feasta Cap and Share model does just this.  Here’s the jist — the Cap and Share model here referred to as an “Earth Climate Commons Trust” —

A diverse group of citizens, acting on behalf of the whole human family and all life on Earth, establish an independent Earth Climate Commons Trust (ECCT). Acting on independent climate science, the Trust sets an annually reducing cap on the total amount of fossil fuels that can be introduced into the global economy and issues permits up to the amount of the cap, available for purchase by fuel companies for full market value. The proceeds of sale are paid to or applied for the benefit of all adult citizens in the world in equal shares, via a network of national and local citizen’s climate trusts. Nation-state governments collaborate with the Trust by banning the introduction of the fuels into their territory without an ECCT permit. So long as not all state governments have agreed to collaborate, the ECCT limits the total number of permits issued in the same proportion as the use of fossil fuels in the countries participating, in relation to total global use.    

– John Jopling, Feasta.   Excerpt from proposal submitted by the NGO Major Group for The Ten Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Production and Consumption, UN Commission for Sustainable Development (2010)

For any questions, resources, or additional contacts regarding any of these commons models, please contact

Mary Beth Steisslinger, MS

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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Categories: Academics, Commons, Frameworks & Models


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3 Comments on “Sage Advice for Occupy? from Nobel winner Elinor Ostrom”

  1. February 26, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    i think we need info here relating to the Great Lakes Social Charter, a great model being developed by a collaboration of Great Lakes community groups hoping to protect the Great Lakes from commodification of the water resource (ex, building a pipeline and selling it to water-starved regions and also bottling it for resale).


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