If we look at the past a lot that we humans have done to our planet seems extraordinarily stupid. We have hunt down lots of animal species and drove them to extinction (Flying foxes, Dodos, Steller’s sea cows or Quaggas being just some famous ones among them), we have polluted the environment in ways that are dangerous to ourselves and we have used technologies that certainly ruin our planet’s resources on the long run. Our population explodes in incredible heights that will soon challenge the world’s capacity more than ever before.
Are we, as the “crown of God’s creation”, though still simply not intelligent enough to inhabit mother Earth sustainably, when sustainability means simply not taking more than nature needs for re-establishment? Where is our instinct about how to use our ecological environment in the best possible way, that instinct that all other species seem to have internalized? This article will take you on a journey on what sustainable behavior means, why it is so hard for us to achieve it and how to possibly get off the spiraled track down to the collapse of our biosphere. The mystery is rooted in the individual decisions that everybody takes on her and his own and that, in combination, lead to a collective over-depletion of natural goods.
But let’s take a step back to 2001 and have a look at the Oscar-winning biographic picture A Beautiful Mind by Ron Howard. In an elegantly arranged scene (that is, however, deeply sexist) in the first third of the movie we can see the young student of Mathematics, John Nash, giving advice to his two friends while hanging out in a bar and looking for girls to hook up with. The situation is tricky: all three of them want to hit on a hot blonde chick that is standing there surrounded by a group of girls. Nevertheless, Nash mentions, they are surely going to impede each other’s efforts if they all equally approach the beautiful girl. Switching to her less impressive female friends after having been rejected by the blonde will lead to denial as well, because “nobody likes to be second choice”. So, instead of going for the hot blonde, all three of them should just immediately pick up the female friends of the blondie, so that everybody will get at least something going. Nash concludes his thoughts with a general idea that makes an important addition to the classic economic paradigm that is stating that everybody should merely follow his own interests:
The conflict seems smartly abandoned by Nash’s considerations. But let’s think a step further: Since the blonde lady is free now, shouldn’t again every single one of the guys try to pursue her, in order not to be the idiot who made the way free for the others? And here is the same conflict as before again! Though not free from theoretical flaws, this scene gives a good idea about the general behavioral obstacles that emerge when there is a good (the blondie), many actors that want to declare that good for themselves (the guys) and there is uncertainty about the strategies of the others (why should you trust a cheap promise?):
the most efficient strategy that you can chose for yourself is not the same as the one with the best outcome for all, and this problem is not (neither mathematically nor intuitively) trivial to resolve.
The real John Nash, describing similar problems of cooperation and coordination in the field of Game Theory, that I just roughly outlined, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in 1994. Nash became one the most influential figures in Microeconomics in the 20th century, just as he received attention for his life-long struggling with schizophrenia. His name is still omnipresent in Game Theory: The behavioral equilibrium that emerges when every single “player” (referring to anyone who has the choice between different actions) in a game (referring to every situation where the outcome is dependent on the decisions of more than just one actor) chooses the strategy that is optimal for him or her, regardless of the choices of the others, is called the Nash equilibrium, and the corresponding optimal strategy of the player a Nash strategy.
So, how does all that link to natural ecological goods, services and functions and the human population? When we deal with a natural good, we are pretty much in an analogue game as the guys in the bar. The players now are not chauvinistic male students, but the resource users and the ecological goods are our pay-offs – so here the value of the ladies is the value of animals, trees, forests, clean water and so on. Now think about the last time you did something unsustainably, may it just be that you let your plastic rubbish in a place where it cannot be recycled and won`t be collected. What was your reason? An answer that many people give, to themselves or others:
Everybody does it. And if everybody does, how can my behavior make a difference?
Why spent effort to look for a garbage bin if the benefits are not even visible? Though totally different framed, the conflict is alike in the bar: why adjust my behavior, if I can’t be sure that the other’s behave in order to sustain the collective good (here: the environment, in the bar: effective sharing of the ladies)? I have the benefit of not spending effort to behave clean, but my costs, through the disadvantage of a polluted environment, spread among all ecosystem users and are hence diluted so extensively that I don’t even personally feel them. I follow the optimal, the Nash strategy and not the strategy that could lead to a social optimum, a healthy, clean environment. And so do the others. The people are caught in the Nash equilibrium, because nobody, from his personal perspective, has incentives to deviate from his strategy of unsustainable behavior. Neither can the environment enforce behavior, as the blonde lady from the prior example could have done by e.g. just leaving the bar after having noticed what jerks the mathematicians are. Simply like this, public natural goods are destroyed by rational choices.
An easily accessible way to look at the mathematics of such an interaction is also a game matrix. Let’s invent another, more relevant visual example of ecosystem use, a coastal fish stock that is exploited by a couple of fishermen individually, as it is the case in many small-scale fisheries in the tropics. The fish stock grows by itself and can be used sustainably, but only if fishers don’t extract too much or too young fish. The matrix below shows what we can get out of the stock (shown as size of the dummy) as a function of what we do (rows) and what the others do (columns): we can either exploit limitless (which means take out as much as we can) or exploit sustainably, and so can the others. The entries of the matrix reflect the pay-off (the yield of fish) for us (blue) and for the other fishermen (purple), depending on our choice of strategy (hence, the row) and the choice of the others (the column).
If all fish sustainably all get more as if they would overexploit, as you can see in the matrix (upper left entry, compared lower right). This makes sense: the long-term growth of the fish stock could nourish many generations of fishermen. However, if all others fish sustainably it is fruitful for me to overexploit, because the abstinence of the others leaves more fish for me (lower left entry)!
The logic is compellable: no matter what the others do (first or second column) we gain more fish when overexploiting (second row) compared to when fishing sustainably (first row). And as everybody faces this same situation, people get caught in a social trap where there is no incentive to change strategy towards a more sustainable use, although all parties would gain more in case they all cooperated, means, behaved sustainably.
This sad logic leads us to end up in a Nash equilibrium, which is marked by the circle in the matrix, where fish are overexploited by all ecosystem users and the stock will most likely collapse in near future. Quite some coastal fisheries have met their fate by exactly this process.
It was Garrett Hardin who introduced this problem as the “Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) into social sciences, referring to the common goods, which natural goods, more or less freely usable by all inhabitants of a region, certainly are. Hardin was pessimistic regarding humans and proposed that the mentioned dilemma must lead to the depletion of our planet’s goods. A possible solution that he suggested though, was a central government of resources, where adequate behavior is enforced through law and punishment by an authority. However, this does not really solve the problem, but just takes it to another level: who should have the incentive to spend time and money to rule sustainably over resources? And who undertakes the effort of controlling the every-day behavior of all ecosystem users? It is obvious that change has to come from the users themselves.
This, so far, leaves us pretty desperate, but the mindful reader might already expect that all this is just part of the truth. Every day, we can see many examples of humans as a collective using goods cooperatively at all spatial scales (e.g. in a shared apartment or on a national level). And, even more frequently, we can see people behaving far from economically optimizing their decisions. Think of all the beautiful irrationalities of human life. Think of the many times we do something not for material interests or when we miscalculate consequences of our behavior.
Whatever we are, I think we all agree, it is not the homo oeconomicus.
Nevertheless, we aren’t 100% altruistic either, because this is an evolutionary dead end, or as Willard van Orman Quine puts it:
Instead, evolutionary biology, suggests: We, as a hypersocial species, are conditional cooperators. And now, if we find some of those conditions that make us cooperate (i.e. that change the rules of the game in a way that leads us to change the strategy, from the Nash strategy – the lower right corner of the matrix – to the social optimum – the upper left corner), we are on the track to mystery of how to achieve sustainable collective action.
If we look at the results from experiments that resembled dilemmas as the above introduced we often find behaviors that depart from the Nash strategy and act much more cooperative. Conditions that have repeatedly lead to an increase in pro-social, sustainable behavior by test persons are for example the possibility of communication between the players and non-anonymous group context. Also long-term familiarity between the players (f.e. groups of colleagues), smaller groups, individuals that harbor pro-social norms, increased number of rounds played with the same persons, and the introduction of peer punishment (allowing players to punish others when they played the Nash strategy instead of a more cooperative strategy) between the players makes a difference.
Although these conditions change nothing in the principal structure of the monetary pay-off matrix, they lead us to behave less selfish and more towards the cooperative, sustainable optimum!
One can conclude that the fear of being the liar and free-rider in front of the others and the related shame gives rise to our decision. Additionally, recognition, familiarity, social bonds, a multi-round game and small groups give rise to the chance of building trust and reciprocity among the players: I know you, and if you behave cooperative I will do so too. This brings people one crucial step closer to the social optimum and away from the Nash equilibrium. Findings like this have led Behavioral Economists to construct more complex models of human behavior, that increasingly include psychological and social parameters and not only utilitaristic motivations. 2002, it was Daniel Kahnemann who received the Nobel Prize for introducing mathematical approaches into Economics to model humans biases in perceiving, thinking, feeling and deciding.
But back from the lab to our ecosystems. Do the psychological experiments have something to do with our use of natural goods? And here we come to another Nobel Prize winning Economist, Elinor Ostrom (2009), who was the first female ever receiving this award. She was spending decades on doing research in various ecosystem goods all over the world, asking: what does people lead to manage their natural and public resources sustainably? She noticed that “top-down” regulations, as suggested by Hardin in the Tragedy of the Commons regularly fail to implement sustainable behavior, may it be because users don’t comply with or believe in the rules, or illegal activities just undermine any formal law that restricts resource use. Nevertheless, she and many other scientists found groups of people that behaved in harmony with the growth of a natural good, for instance at the coast of the Gulf of Mexico (Ostrom & Basurto 2008).
There, the researchers compared the development of the fisheries of three different communities during the last century, the Puerto Pañasco, Kino and Seri. All three of them harvest small sessile mollusks like pen shells that they collect with rudimentary diving gears and the Mexican government has little influence on their small-scale fisheries. The scientists found out that the Seri were the only community that was able to sustain their resource until today. The other two overexploited and have experienced severely diminished catches. Why?
They could detect several factors linked with that difference in behavior: the Seri are a more culturally and historically cohesive group than the other villages, having experienced conflicts with other ethnical groups just as they often had to defend their resources throughout centuries, which lead them to develop a strong sense of community with deep trust and reciprocity. It was much easier for them to self-organize collective action towards a proper management system for their natural resource than for the other fisheries. The other communities consist of more heterogeneous groups that share less history, customs and common identity. In fact, in Kino and Puerto Pañasco there is a constant in- and outflux of fishermen from different cultures and regions, often just arriving to try their luck in the local fisheries. Conditions necessary for inducing non-Nash strategies that we know from the economic experiments – familiarity, shared norms, repeated interactions, communication, shortly: the possibility to build trust and reciprocity – are substantially missing in the setting!
Elinor Ostrom has elaborated many factors more beside those social ones that make sustainable behavior in ecosystem use more likely (Ostrom 2009). Her framework incorporates properties not only of the users’ group, but also of the resource and resource system itself (some natural goods are surely easier to sustain than others and some legal surroundings are necessary despite all social capital!). It will stay a task for future generations of researchers to still more clearly define the mechanisms that trigger sustainable behavior and carve out plans to translate this knowledge into effective policy.
What I hopefully could demonstrate in this article is not only that the logic behind the dilemma of natural goods, but also that evolution has equipped us with a cognition that is able to overcome these dilemmas. The group-living animal that we are is at least as much guided by the social environment as it is by its personal economic interests. I want to close with a quote from the psychologists Susan Clayton and Eugene Myers (2009):
With a little more empathy the mathematicians in the bar would have surely found a way agree on one among them who is supported in hitting on the blonde source of attraction. What satisfaction it can be to know your friend got a successful strike!
Mero, L. (1998). Moral calculations: Game theory, logic, and human frailty. Springer Science & Business Media.
Kahneman, D. (2003). Maps of bounded rationality: Psychology for behavioral economics. American economic review, 1449-1475.
Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.
Ostrom, E. (2007). A general framework for analyzing sustainability of. In Proc. R. Soc. London Ser. B (Vol. 274, p. 1931).
Basurto, X., & Ostrom, E. (2009). Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons. Economia delle fonti di energia e dell’ambiente.
Clayton, S., & Myers, G. (2009). Conservation psychology: understanding and promoting human care for nature. John Wiley & Sons.
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Tom Vierus is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist based in Suva, Fiji Islands. This blog is dedicated to his assignments and to sharing some behind-the-scenes footage.