January 6, 2014

Five Lessons About the Commons

...which filmmaker Barbara Allen draws from the work of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom for her new film about them

Below are filmmaker Barbara Allen’s “Five Lessons” that structure her documentary on the lives and work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, Actual World, Possible Future. Allen’s film is currently in post-production. You can learn more about the Ostroms and the project via the blog Ostrom the Movie.

To help make sure the film and these lessons reach the broadest possible international audience, you can make a tax-deductible contribution through Carleton College. Email to learn how. You can also follow the fundraising campaign on Facebook, or send a message to the production team via Twitter.

Five Lessons

I. Starting from Here

Lesson I, emphasizes the roles of artisanship and science in the design of our communities—including the intimate association of a marriage. The “art and science” of how we associate with each other emerged as Vincent’s core concern—from drafting part of the Alaska constitution to fashioning a marriage with Lin. They always started from a challenging place—what Lin would always describe as a “puzzle.”

II. Diagnosing Reasons for Failures

We must improve our ability to understand our failures. Lin and Vincent saw that people often err by ignoring the truth that we are fallible beings, whether in fractured marriages or worldwide violence of the twentieth century. Through careful study, we can learn and even improve our tools of learning and diagnosis, while maintaining deep humility about our capability and fallibility.

III. “There are No Panaceas“—each solution brings another problem

We can never create an ultimate “solution” to any problem. Each solution creates a new context and, as we learn to take advantage of that context, we face opportunities to make new mistakes. We discover new inequities (no matter how deep the concern for fairness and justice) and confront new dilemmas in our emotional, spiritual, and physical world. Diagnosis, not perfection, must be out constant aim.

IV. Little is Straight and Narrow

The human condition is complex. Explaining that complexity is also, a complex enterprise. We must be patient and seek understanding. We cannot understand a given institutional form—neither the forms that families take nor a parliament—without considering its rules-ordered context and the history giving meaning to rules. A given institution may be considered as a whole in itself, but undoubtedly each “whole” is a part of a more encompassing set of arrangements. We must understand whole-parts and wholes by shifting our frame of reference seamlessly, with the depth permitted by our binocular vision.

V. We Can, So We Must

Lin’s oft-repeated mantra, “We Can, So We Must” serves as a call to action for human beings to address their problems by working from experience, testing ideas, diagnosing their failures, making changes, and trying again. When asked if she thought “regular people” could address climate change, Lin Ostrom always answered, “We can and we must.” Some problems are best addressed by an individual, while others require cooperation in voluntary association or governments ranging from village councils to international organizations. We can and we must connect ideas to how we get things done.

© Barbara Allen 2013