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Maintaining cooperation in social-ecological systems: Effective bottom-up management often requires sub-optimal resource use

Tilman, A. R., J. R. Watson, and S. Levin. (2016). Theoretical Ecology.DOI 10.1007/s12080-016-0318-8


Natural resources are vulnerable to overexploitation in the absence of effective management. However, norms, enforced by social ostracism, can promote cooperation and increase stock biomass in common-pool resource systems. Unfortunately, the long-term sustainable use of a resource is not assured even if cooperation, maintained by ostracism and aimed at optimizing resource use, exists. Here, using the example of fisheries, we show that for a cooperative to be maintained by ostracism over time, it often must act inefficiently, choosing a ‘secondbest’ strategy where the resource is over-harvested to some degree. Those cooperatives that aim for maximum sustainable profit, the “first-best” harvest strategy, are more vulnerable to invasion by independent harvesters, leading to larger declines in the fish population. In contrast, second-best strategies emphasize the resistance to invasion by independent harvesters over maximizing yield or profit. Ultimately, this leads to greater long-run payoffs to the resource users as well as higher resource stock levels. This highlights the value of pragmatism in the design of cooperative institutions for managing natural resources.

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Keywords: Commons, Cooperation, Evolutionary game theory, Social-ecological systems, Fisheries, Human behavior, Sustainability, Coupled natural-human systems ·, Collective action

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