Thursday, September 22, 2011

Brilliant Lecture by Dr. Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate and Activist

This week the theme has certainly been the environment and sustainability, from the SAMSI workshop that I spoke at in North Carolina to today's brilliant lecture at UMass Amherst by Dr. Elinor Ostrom, who is the first and, thus far, only female to receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, which she did in 2009.

Dr. Ostrom delivered the 15th Annual Gamble Lecture, entitled, "Thinking About Climate Change as a Commons." In her lecture, she emphasized that we cannot wait for governments to act to reduce environmental emissions and that we must do what we can as individuals, as members of families, and as members of communities. She emphasized that, what is needed, is a new theory of human behavior that can look towards the future so that individuals can realize the impact of their actions on the environment.

She spoke of her research on water resources, irrigation systems, forests, and her work with indigenous people in various countries. She noted that if humans see the impacts of their actions, such, as, for example, what was being done in Sacramento, where one receives bills as to one's household water use, relative to that of others, and illustrated in colorful bar charts, one can then react and change one's use of resources accordingly.

Pricing, in the form of carbon taxes, etc., may not be sufficient to alter people's behavior nor as effective.

What came to me is that we need to utilize sensor networks to inform citizens of the externalities of their actions, whether in terms of environmental impacts, water usage, and even congestion.

She noted also that we must educate students to focus on sustainability, to realize the difference that we can make by walking or biking, rather than driving a car and by setting our thermostats lower.

If we have a stake in nature, including forests, where we may walk, pick flowers and even mushrooms, then we will take care of them.

Local action can collectively make a global impact.

She also emphasized that corporations need to not only be profit-maximizers but to also have additional criteria in their decision-making, something that we have been emphasizing in our research from transportation networks to sustainable supply chain networks.

The opportunities for additional mathematical modeling using integrated tools from operations research and economics are immense.

She spoke with such conviction, energy, and humanism, to an audience that was standing room only and she was born in 1933!

Above I have posted photos from her lecture today and it was truly special to be able to speak with her in person, along with my doctoral student, Min Yu.

After writing the above post, I heard from Dr. Priscilla Nelson of the NJIT, who was in my discussion group on sustainability at the SAMSI workshop. She provided me with a link to a video of Dr. Ostrom's lecture last March at the Resilience 2011 Conference. In the lecture, she does a marvelous job of emphasizing the importance of mathematical models and nested systems as well as game theory. She also emphasized the importance of case studies. Dr. Ostrom's presentation slides from the Resilience Conference can be accessed here.