Go to contents

[Op-Ed] Advice From a Nobel Laureate

Posted October. 26, 2009 08:49,   


The late Garrett Hardin, a biology professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said in his 1968 thesis “The Tragedy of the Commons” that shared resources such as the air, parks and maritime and underground resources should not be left to the market, which only pursues private interests. The commons, which everybody can use for free, he said, will be destroyed and their resources will soon be depleted because people will use them for their personal interests. In other words, a factory owner benefits by polluting a river’s water upstream to produce goods, but the act damages people living downstream since they cannot get clean water.

Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom, the first female recipient of Nobel Prize for economics, has presented a solution to this problem. Instead of state intervention and market principles, she suggested a third way: control of the commons by collective users. An increase in the number of elephants in Zimbabwe is one of the best examples. Due to poachers who seek ivory, elephants in the country were on the brink of extinction. After villagers were given the right to hunt the elephants, they began protecting this endangered species. As a result, the number of elephants has significantly increased.

Ostrom has visited Korea and has many Korean followers. In an interview with Yonhap News yesterday, she said Korea’s long coastlines and coastal resources are growth engines and urged Korea to preserve its fisheries and maritime resources. Though her main focus is the commons, her comment has hit home the importance of coastal resources. Ostrom’s advice is all the more touching since Korea’s coastal ecosystem is suffering from the reclamation of mud flats, waste dumping, oil spills, and declining fisheries.

Critics say the Nobel Prize Committee awarded her the prize in recognition of her criticism of neo-liberalism. She not only recognized the failure of the market but also highlighted ineffectiveness stemming from reckless state intervention. What she highlights is the restoration of community and soundness of civil society. Sungkyunkwan University professor Lee Myeong-seok, an Ostrom disciple, said, “She’s devoted her entire life to how people voluntarily cooperate and find solutions.” Hopefully, Ostrom’s advice will reverberate in Korean society, where people tend to only seek personal interests and freeriders are prevalent.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)