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Elisabeth Andrews
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Monday, February 19, 2007

Sometimes people can be trusted

Alternative means of ecological preservation

Multitier Framework for Analyzing Sustainable Social-Ecological Systems. Straight arrows represent direct causal links; red, curved arrows represent feedbacks.

Feb. 19, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- Government ownership is not always the best way to protect natural resources, said Elinor Ostrom, director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University.

In a presentation given on Saturday (Feb. 17) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she described a diagnostic framework to help policymakers develop sustainability plans for each unique resource. Contradicting the standard approach to environmental protection, the Multi-tier Framework for Analyzing Sustainable Social-Ecological Systems relies on her conviction that "most people can be trusted if the institutions enhance trust."

The framework, pictured in this release, demonstrates how different characteristics of a social-ecological system influence one another. Each of these broad categories contains several variables, which can in turn be further broken down.

During the past several years, Ostrom's research has focused on testing the framework by mapping different social-ecological situations using these universal components. She is now working to identify the crucial characteristics that can determine which type of solution is indicated for the particular resource system. Solutions might range from grassroots governance in certain circumstances to government regulation or a private property system in others, she said.

"Adopting any one strategy as a panacea for all ecological threats is clearly the wrong way to proceed," Ostrom said. "A fishery that has been operated by the same families for centuries is going to require a very different approach from one in which commercial fishers arrive for just a single harvest. The instinct among environmentalists, however, seems to be to follow one strategy, such as marketable permits, no matter what the circumstances.

"My goal in putting this system together is to help people approach sustainability questions the way a physician approaches a patient with health problems," Ostrom continued. "The particular treatment depends not only on the physician's diagnosis but also on the characteristics of the patient and the resources of the community. We need to consider each environmental question just as carefully."

Within a fishery, for example, researchers can identify the size of the operation (large or small), the clarity of the boundaries of fishable waters (clear or unclear), the predictability of the supply of fish (stable or unstable), and the productivity of the system (high or low output). Characteristics of the resource units (fish) can also be identified, such as their mobility, size, growth rate and economic value. Attributes of the users might include their number, socioeconomic status, history with the fishery and level of dependence on the resource for their livelihood. Within governance systems, researchers can identify the types of governmental and non-governmental organizations involved in the operation as well as the systems and rules that exist outside any formal structure.

These and other factors can have widely varying implications in terms of the best possible solutions for sustaining the resource system.

Ostrom is best known for her groundbreaking research demonstrating that small communities are capable of sustainable self-governance of common-pool resources. Her studies of collective action, both in the laboratory and the field, contradict the assumption that individuals always act in their own self-interest leading to overuse or destruction of shared community resources.

For more information on the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and the Multi-tier Framework for Analyzing Sustainable Social-Ecological Systems contact Ostrom at or Elisabeth Andrews, Indiana University Media Relations, 812-855-2153 or