Common resources, collective interest: GVSU professor's book, accompanying exhibition explore these themes through lens of pioneering economist

Jason Reblando, "Wide Canal," 2019 archival pigment print: The flat terrain of the horta de València is carefully graded to enable irrigation water to flow across the fields.
Jason Reblando, "Wide Canal," 2019 archival pigment print: The flat terrain of the horta de València is carefully graded to enable irrigation water to flow across the fields.

Each week in Valencia, Spain, the public gathers at a cathedral to watch the airing of disputes between farmers who are part of a centuries-old irrigation collective.

Erik Nordman, professor of natural resources management, explains in his new book that the social infrastructure of this canal system is as essential as the physical infrastructure, allowing its users to carry on a generational agreement where farmers work cooperatively to manage resources for irrigating their fields.

It's one of the many situations worldwide that Nordman researched for the book, "The Uncommon Knowledge of Elinor Ostrom." The research of Ostrom, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics, challenged the conventional wisdom that people only act in self interest when it comes to managing and using shared resources, Nordman said.

The book is part of Science magazine's summer reading recommendations.

Ostrom's work countered a prevailing notion that shared resources, from a fishery to public safety to public health, must either be privatized or subject to government regulations to ensure equitable management, he said.

"At her core she was really committed to democracy and to believing that people have the capacity to overcome selfish motivations and really work together to resolve problems," Nordman said. "It's not easy to do but they have this potential."

He said that notion takes on added significance today with the COVID-19 pandemic and issues of common good during polarized times.

The system in Valencia was just one of the examples of Ostrom's principles at work, he said. Farmers work together and at the public tribunal resolve disputes, such as compensation for a farmer when another leaves open an irrigation gate and floods the fields.


Erik Nordman, left. At right: Jason Reblando, "Gancho", 2019 archival pigment print: The gancho, a hooked staff, was once used by a water guard to lift wooden canal gates and clear debris from the canals.
Erik Nordman, left. At right: Jason Reblando, "Gancho", 2019 archival pigment print: The gancho, a hooked staff, was once used by a water guard to lift wooden canal gates and clear debris from the canals.
Image Credit: Nordman photo: Amanda Pitts

Exhibition details shared water resource among farmers

Nordman's collaborator, Jason Reblando, has captured this cooperative spirit through photographs that are currently on display in Lake Ontario Hall. “Canal by Canal: Photography by Jason Reblando,” showcases images that tell the story of the people and spaces in this community, said Joel Zwart, curator of exhibitions for the GVSU Art Gallery.

Zwart said the Art Gallery team was excited about the opportunity to support Nordman's scholarship while also highlighting the subject of water management through this photography.

"The exhibition provides wonderful visual insight into the words that Erik shares in his book about this particular case study on resource management and the legacy of Elinor Ostrom’s work," Zwart said.



On the Wall Artist Talks

Jason Reblando, "Ernesto Marí Zazo," 2019 archival pigment print: Ernesto Marí Zazo farms a plot in the Rascanya canal district. Farm plots in the Valencian horta are small, so most farmers have primary jobs in town. Ernesto, now retired, was a welder.
Jason Reblando, "Ernesto Marí Zazo," 2019 archival pigment print: Ernesto Marí Zazo farms a plot in the Rascanya canal district. Farm plots in the Valencian horta are small, so most farmers have primary jobs in town. Ernesto, now retired, was a welder.

Jason Reblando will talk about his work on September 17, from noon-1 p.m. as part of the ongoing series featuring artists discussing their creative process. Space is limited for the in-person Lake Ontario Hall event; an RSVP is required. An option to join the event virtually will also be available. Visit gvsu.edu/artgallery for details.