Posted by: erichosemann | October 18, 2010

Elinor Ostrom & the Chilean Miners

This piece by Brendan O’Neill at Spiked got me to thinking about communities, common resources, and of course, Elinor Ostrom.  All I really know about Elinor Ostrom’s work comes from this short video:

In spite of my eminent–or immanent?–ignorance I think her description of people unable to “roam and steal” with “a time and place that is theirs” applies to the 33 miners in Chile.

How so?

The miners in their dark entrapment were faced with fixed resources of mental stamina and psychological endurance. They figured out how to manage those resources on their own, by putting together a rudimentary governing structure that regulated the amount of time they worked, played, and griped.

Experts from above–quite literally, and pun very much intended–were convinced that what the miners needed for survival was something very different from what the miners were able to create for themselves.  This isn’t unusual; it’s what experts do.  What’s freakish and disturbing is these experts tried to withhold whatever succor they could provide the miners in order to force the miners’ behavior into theoretical molds.

The miners’ experience seems to me a very real social experiment illustrating how individuals manage common-pool resources and how they devise ways to delineate the boundary–or border, if you prefer–between them and the experts determined to manage their behavior.  At first it may seem pointless to say that the miners needed to distinguish themselves from the experts on the surface.  After all, thousands of feet of the earth’s crust separated the two groups.  But if you think about it a little, formally identifying who is a miner and who is an expert may have been crucial in helping them build the solidarity needed to govern their behavior and stave off madness.  I imagine many conversations taking place along the lines of “Are you going to trust some surface-bound egghead with mere theories, or your miner brothers, who have worked here for decades and know how to survive?”


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