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The Story of Vincent and Elinor Ostrom

Barbara Allen, a longtime student and friend with access to their personal papers, chronicles the Ostroms' life and work in a new film

Filmmaker Barbara Allen is now raising money for her documentary on Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, Actual World, Possible FutureFor more information on how to support this important effort, see Indiegogo, a commons-based crowdfunding platform.

Elinor Ostrom overcame considerable barriers to become the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics. Besides the obvious discrimination against women in academia and society at large, she faced the stigma of stuttering as a child and growing up poor with a divorced mother in the low-rent district of glitzy Beverly Hills. Ostrom worked her way through UCLA in three years and then put her husband through Harvard Law School, after which he became a successful entertainment lawyer in Hollywood. A comfortable, stylish life in the world capital of 1950s glamour seemed a just reward for her tribulations and hard work.

But Ostrom, then known as Lynn Scott, was not a typical ‘50s housewife. She sought out a job as a secretary at UCLA to stay engaged in intellectual inquiry. Her life changed when she entered graduate school in political science and met Vincent Ostrom, a scholar of Public Administration who had helped draft the groundbreaking section on natural resources in the Alaska Constitution, which decreed that the state’s natural resources were to be used for the benefit of all Alaskans.

Vincent’s reputation as an expert on natural resources and the environment was growing. In 1960, both the Kennedy and Nixon presidential campaigns asked him to help draft their positions on the subject (he worked for Kennedy because his campaign was the first to ask). After both first marriages ended and the completion of Elinor’s Ph.D in Political Science, she and Vincent married in 1965. Vincent took a job at Indiana University on the condition that Elinor was granted a faculty position—a common practice in academia where a “trailing spouse” is sometimes granted a “courtesy appointment.”

This courtesy paid off handsomely for the university when Ostrom won the Nobel Prize and was named to Time magazine’s list of World’s 100 Most Influential People. “The world is again beginning to appreciate what Elinor Ostrom has deeply, persistently and quietly been illuminating for nearly 50 years,” the magazine declared.

Elinor Ostrom’s body of work, which highlighted the role of commons and citizen participation at many levels of society, grew out of her collaboration with Vincent and scholars from around the world at Indiana University’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, which the two of them founded in 1973 and ran together for 39 years. The Workshop changed how people think about shared resources, public services, centralization, and privatization. Together and separately, Vincent and Elinor carried out research throughout the world, delivered addresses on every continent, and authored or co-authored dozens of books and book chapters as well as hundreds of articles.

The Ostroms always envisioned their institute as an actual workshop, where they and others “could collaborate like artisans,” explains Barbara Allen, who worked on her Ph.D with the Ostroms and is now a Senior Research Fellow at the Workshop as well as a filmmaker and Political Science professor at Carleton College. People from all over the world visited their home in Bloomington, Indiana, where they built all the furniture themselves. “There was always a pot of soup on the wood-burning stove in the winter and fresh salad Lin had prepared in the summer,” recalls Allen, who was visited their home for extended periods of time.

Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, who were 12 years apart in age, died within 17 days of each other in 2012.

Ostrom the Film

If this sounds like the script of a movie, with a determined couple triumphing over adversity to achieve a happy life and international recognition, that’s because it is. Barbara Allen is making a documentary about Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, based upon her own experiences and an archive of material they gave her shortly before their deaths.

The project began in 2005 when Elinor encouraged Allen to edit Vincent’s unpublished writings, resulting eventually in two books. She spent several weeks interviewing Vincent in their cabin on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, which they had built by hand. The next year Allen created a film tribute to Vincent, which led to the idea for a longer film about their work together. The project proceeded in small spurts, gaining greater magnitude when Elinor won the Nobel Prize, until 2011 when Elinor was diagnosed with cancer.

“We agreed that we needed to move up the filming project,” Allen recounts. “We spent a week filming everything and everyone we could possibly manage. Lin was still learning to manage pain medication and was already in chemo. But for Lin, the work must go on.”

Allen, who grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, met the Ostroms when she was 19, and they became her intellectual parents throughout college and graduate school, and she remained close to them for the rest of their lives. She accompanied Elinor to Stockholm in 2009 to receive the Nobel Prize.

Allen recalls being invited to dinner at the Ostroms when they were hosting Garrett Hardin, the wildlife biologist who coined the phrase “Tragedy of the Commons.” His theory that shared resources cause environmental ruin held great sway for many decades until Elinor won the Nobel Prize. Her research validated the view that commons are not inevitably tragic since many communities throughout history have figured how to sustainably manage commonly held resources for the future—the theme of her most famous book, Governing the Commons.

“Lin and Garrett Hardin had a long correspondence that was a no-holds barred conversation” about the commons, Allen notes, yet she felt perfectly comfortable welcoming him to their home for dinner. That’s because both Vincent and Elinor believed in the creativity of contestation. “They argued things out, even among themselves—and out of that sometimes came new ideas they had never thought about. It was a form of co-creation.”

Telling me this story as we sit in her Minneapolis home, Allen shows me a painting the Ostroms commissioned from a native artist in Canada depicting two porcupines facing one another in a combative stance—a playful symbol of their relationship. At one moment they might engage in intense discussions about the best way to chop a carrot, she notes, and then go outside together to watch the sunset and moon rise.

Allen hopes the film will draw wider attention to the Ostroms’ lives and work. “I want this to be subtitled in many languages, so it can be shown in villages and local city halls around the world.”

She also wants to highlight some of the lesser known ideas promoted by the Ostroms such as polycentricity, which is closely linked to how commons thrive or wither. The word, literally meaning “having more than one center,” was adopted by the Ostroms to describe situations in which authority and decisionmaking are shared among a number of people or organizations. For instance, responsibility for taking care of a pasture (the example used by Garrett Hardin in “Tragedy of the Commons”) would be the concern of, say, the federal, state, or local government along with an association of livestock farmers who see the importance of sustaining this resource and an informal network of people who live nearby.

Allen describes polycentricity as “human biodiversity,” a decentralized approach to governance that resembles the complicated workings of an eco-system. “It’s not that one level of authority is always better,” she says. “The polycentric idea is that there is another place to get justice if one is not working.”

“Vincent and Lin’s story is remarkable, and that’s why I want to tell it,” Allen says. “To show the scope of their work, its evolution and how it became world wide.”