Land use today, alongside our rapidly changing climate, poses challenges for us that we often try to meet with technical innovations. In doing so, such challenges deceptively appear simply as a question of natural sciences, with little or nothing to do with human values and ethics and, consequently, social change. Elinor Ostrom has emphatically demonstrated that technical solutions are not enough without the crucial step of altering human social behaviour. Instead of looking to nationalization and privatization, she envisaged a third option: the possibility of a co-operative approach, even within complex systems. In 2009 she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, for her research in the field of sustainable use of common resources (or "commons"). The value of her work lies in the evidence that the commons need not, and must not be used in an economically and ecologically destructive manner. Through multiple studies, Ostrom has shown that the participants can find successful rules for collective and sustainable land use.

Ostrom outlines eight "design principles" that could be viewed as instructions for the use of a commons such as land and/or climate.

Design principles for the successful and sustainable management of a commons:

1. Clearly defined boundaries
2. Coherence with local needs and conditions
3. Collective decision-making
4. Monitoring of users and resources
5. Scale of graduated sanctions for rule violators
6. Conflict resolution processes
7. Recognition of rights
8. Polycentric structure of governance, with nested (accountable) institutions

Ostrom’s assumption is that people will voluntarily abide by such rules in specific local contexts, and that they will look beyond their own maximum benefit, especially when this can resolve social conflict. Such a system could also work in the context of climate change and land use. The crucial point, as underlined by Ostrom, is that people take responsibility and organise themselves, working together to find solutions that take into account local needs and conditions, and involve all stakeholders.
One of the biggest challenges for such a system is to create the conditions for successful implementation; for a sustainable self-organisation of actors, or for a genuine voice for individuals, that increases the sense of (collective) responsibility and thus leads to a more sustainable use of the land resource.
When considering the deforestation of rainforests or the massive so-called "land grabbing" of the last years, with its often devastating effects, it is clear that land use could be seriously, and positively, altered, as a result of applying Ostrom’s principles.
The establishment of multiple small initiatives in many places of the world could make more sense than waiting for globally-organised remedies or international conventions. It is self-evident that this proposed system should be supported by policy. As the Nobel Committee stated, the future of the people belongs to "the organization of cooperation". For such change to succeed, the focus must be shifted onto people, rather than technical advancements and the selective interests of the few. Rapid action is required, especially when considering the advancement of climate change, global social disparities, and world hunger.


  Arneth, A. (Hrsg.). (2016). How agriculture and forestry change climate, and how we deal with it (Booklet EU-Project LUC4C). Garmisch-Partenkirchen: Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT) – Institut für Meteorologie und Klimaforschung Atmosphärische Umweltforschung (IMK-IFU).

Published: 09.08.2016, Vol. 3

Cite as: Agreiter, M.  (2016, August 9th). Sustainable land-use. Earth System Knowledge Platform [], 3.

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