Perhaps what is surprising about this year’s Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, is not as much her new insights on global capitalism or high finance, but rather her emphasis on the deep, old knowledge that has sustained communities around the world for thousands of years. In this day and age, what is new is often thought to be best, but Ostrom reminds us that in economics, there is wisdom to be had in looking back.

In this paper Ostrom offers a couple of reminders that “learning by doing is increasingly difficult, as past lessons are less and less applicable to current problems,” and that in our attempts to achieve sustainable development on a massive scale, “protecting institutional diversity may be as important as protecting biodiversity.” If you wish to glance as Ostrom’s colourful thought-process, watch her well-delivered lecture on the “Theory of Suckers.”

Ecotrust Canada dabbles daily in Ostrom’s world. In the world that the Nobel Prize laureate gives voice to, society’s reliance on one-size-fits-all solutions often proves dangerous to the sustainability of socio-ecological systems and natural resources. According to Ostrom, complex community arrangements that take years to build may be the best safety net to sustain resources and people. And in a place like Canada, where monolithic government policies and large economic investment plans have been the order of the day for a century (logging, fishing, mining, oilsands) the Nobel Laureate invites reflection on how smart we are in planning for sustainable economic development. What is especially appreciated in Ostrom’s work is that she re-introduces the notion that in the end, it is socio-ecological systems (a rainforest and the people who live in it), and not the system’s outputs (trees and fish), that hold the best long-term economic value. It takes a revolution in thought to realize the abundance we have, and that patient capital in the end often provides the greatest returns.

– Daniel Arbour, Clayoquot Program Manager