COS 91-10
When the second-best is best: Maintaining cooperation in the commons

Wednesday, August 12, 2015: 4:40 PM
343, Baltimore Convention Center
Andrew Tilman, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
James R. Watson, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
Simon A. Levin, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

Common pool recourses are resources that are owned collectively and thus can be used by many. Optimal sustainable use of common pool resources can be of great benefit to individuals and societies, however cooperation among resource users is required to achieve this outcome. It has been shown that self-organized governance of common pool resources can be effective, but the theoretical underpinnings that determine this potential are not well understood. Here, we use unregulated fisheries as a model case study to explore the conditions necessary for the long-term persistence of sustainable collective-action agreements. We employ an evolutionary game theoretic approach to explore the role that social ostracism can have in enforcing norms of resource extraction that increase harvests and provide greater welfare to resource users.


Social ostracism is a key mechanism promoting stable cooperation among users in common pool resource systems. However, the long-term sustainable use of a resource is not assured even if cooperation, maintained by ostracism and aimed at optimizing resource use, exists. We show that for a harvesting norm to persist over time, it is often necessary to choose a sub-optimal “second-best” harvest strategy over one that is optimal. Those cooperatives that aim for optimality, the “first-best” harvest strategy, may be vulnerable to invasion by independent harvesters. In contrast, second best strategies emphasize the resistance to invasion by independent harvesters over attaining socially optimal harvests. This ultimately leads to a greater payoff to the resource users in the long run. This work highlights the importance of pragmatism when designing cooperative institutions for managing natural resources.