Elinor Ostrom on human activity and deforestation

Recent attempts to understand processes leading to general environmental harms involve multi-variable models. Ehrlich and Ehrlich (1991), for example, adopted Barry Commoner’s earlier (1972) three-variable causal model: I = P*A*T, where, I = impact on the environment, P = population, A = affluence …, and T = technologies employed. An alternative model developed by Grant (1994) for UNICEF … is the PPE spiral, where poverty and population pressures are viewed as reinforcing one another and jointly impinging on environmental conditions while all three factors – population, poverty, and environment – affect and are affected by political instability.

… [T]hese two models [have many differences.] First, they disagree on the sign of the relationship between poverty and environmental variables. …. [S]hould we expect poverty to adversely affect deforestation in developing countries [the UNICEF model] and affluence to affect deforestation in industrialized countries [the Commoner-Ehrlich model]? The Commoner-Ehrlich model includes population size …. The UNICEF model identifies population growth rather than current size. Technology appears in the Commoner-Ehrlich model, but not in the UNICEF model. Political instability appears in the UNICEF model, but not in the Commoner-Ehrlich model. … [W]hich model best describes the world [?]. If one accepts the Commoner-Ehrlich view, one should focus attention on the most affluent countries and ignore political instability. Accepting the UNICEF view, one would focus on the poorest countries and emphasize the impact of political instability.


[So much for theory. What does the empirical evidence show? Unfortunately, not much.] [A]nalyses of [the effects of] demographic, socioeconomic and institutional factors on deforestation … do not support the idea of human driving forces, whereby there are human mechanisms that operate everywhere the same way – similar to gravity or other physical forces.

Elinor Ostrom, “The International Forestry Resources and Institutions Research Program: A Methodology for Relating Human Incentives and Actions on Forest Cover and Biodiversity”, in F. Dallmeier & J.A. Comiskey (eds.), Forest Biodiversity in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean (UNESCO, Paris, 1998), pp. 2-3, 10.

After so much effort, we still know almost nothing about this important subject. Political scientist Elinor Ostrom is a leading … perhaps the leading … researcher in this field. Lesser researchers actually believe that they understand the relationship between human activity and deforestation, so torture the data until they confess.

Update: Elinor Ostrom today was awarded, along with Berkeley economist Oliver E. Williamson, this year’s Nobel Prize in economics, “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons”.

recycled from the Thought du Jour archive.

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