Northern Ontario's forestry tenure system is broken. The province has finally admitted the fact and is reviewing the entire system. It is time for new leadership. That's why I nominate Elinor Ostrom for premier of Northern Ontario.
We have never had a leader in Northern Ontario who actually understood the forest economy, forest communities and government the way Ms. Ostrom does. The 76-year-old researcher has just won a Nobel Prize in Economics. Her work is about making resource economies work. It is time we started listening to a real expert.
Ostrom's work is like two-by-four applied firmly to the side of the head of a certain kind of pessimistic theorist. Pessimistic social theorists believe that democratic organizations can't work. They can't run forests or fisheries. The pessimists insist that the only way to use resources efficiently is to privatize them. I would prescribe a couple whacks of Ostrom's reality theory to help them see that they have installed some of the chips in their heads backwards.
People who support privatization and oppose local control - like community forests, for example - often lean on one very famous paper published in the Journal of Science in 1968. "The Tragedy of the Commons" by Garret Hardin is one of the most quoted bits of social theory ever.
Hardin described what he thought would happen if villagers could all graze their sheep on a shared field. He thought they would all be tempted to over-graze the field.
Everyone would think, "I had better let my cows get as much as they can before my neighbours' cows get all the grass." In the end the shared field would be destroyed. The lesson was that community control had to fail. Stephen Harper probably studied this result when he got his MA in economics at the University of Calgary.
Hardin was actually telling a parable about the danger of over-population. Having one more kid seems like a good thing for each family, but if everyone does it the world ends up drowning in people. He didn't really have any evidence for his story about the villagers.
But remember when Hardin was writing. Over-population was a major worry. The Cold War was in full swing. Nuclear war seemed a real possibility. Americans thought healthcare was a version of communism. The second Kennedy was murdered in 1968. Cooperation was out of fashion. No wonder Hardin's readers were pessimistic.
Elinor Ostrom actually did the research that Hardin didn't do. By studying common property systems around the world she showed that Hardin and the pessimists were wrong. They weren't wrong in theory - they were wrong in fact.
All over the globe communities manage common properties successfully. In fact, the successful systems only seem to break down when government or outside businesses interfere.
Ostrom went on to use lab-tests to show that when people are the owner-managers of resources the results are usually better than when the government or private sector make decisions.
What did the pessimists miss when they looked at local control? They missed the local control part. Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons happens when local control breaks down. Ostrom tells us that local control doesn't have to break down. Rules that come from the inside are obeyed more than rules that come from outside.
Ostrom has co-edited a book that sounds like it was written for Northern Ontario. "Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Human-Environment Interactions in Forest Ecosystems," brings together findings from a research project undertaken by anthropologists, geographers, economists, sociologists, political scientists, environmental scientists, and biologists in more than twelve countries at over 80 locations.
It might be a good idea to buy a copy for the Minister of Northern Development Mines and Forestry, Michael Gravelle. In fact, it might be a good idea to buy a whole box of the books and make sure that everyone involved in revising the Northern Ontario tenure system has read it. I am willing to write the test to see if they have done their homework.
Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for high-quality research that changes our ideas about what works and what doesn't. Her work encourages us to believe that Northerners can solve Northern problems.
Dave Robinson is an economist with the Institute for Northern Ontario Research at Laurentian University.