Professor Ostrom - who shares the prize with Oliver Williamson of the University of California, Berkeley - has spent much of her career challenging the view that when people share a finite resource, they will inevitably end up destroying it. This widely held belief, known as the tragedy of the commons, is used to support arguments for tighter regulation or even privatisation.
She has approached the argument from an unusual perspective, too. Through her study of the way that natural resources have been managed around the world, she has found that, left to manage resources on their own and given the right support, local people often develop the most effective methods of sustainable development.
“We have a team of people studying forestry in 200 cities around the world. This is very big study, trying to understand why some forests have just disappeared and others have been sustained. We started in 1992. We have been able to go back and go back and go back to get very good data sets.
“Our findings are that some local people who have had long-term assurances of harvesting rights are able to manage forests more effectively than people who do not have the same assurances. The lessons are that when regulation comes from a distant authority and is uniform for a very large region, it is not likely to succeed.”
Professor Ostrom - whose doctorate is in political science and who considers herself a political economist - will not be drawn to comment on hot political issues, such as the push for tighter regulation of Wall Street or the perennial question of American healthcare. They are, she says, not her field.
But she does have a message for government: “The big message is that we need to have respect for the capabilities of humans living all over the world, not just those occupying high positions,” she said. “It’s not that we want to get rid of government. It’s about getting rid of the idea that government can solve everything.”
To this end, she is a firm supporter of direct action. “I have recently written a paper on global warming and argued that we should not sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for someone to do something. We should act now. There is a lot we can all do at all levels,” she said.