PerspectiveSocial Science

Cooperation and the Commons

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Science  12 Nov 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6006, pp. 923-924
DOI: 10.1126/science.1198349

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Summary

Sustainably managing common natural resources, such as fisheries, water, and forests, is essential for our long-term survival. Many analysts have assumed, however, that people will maximize short-term self-benefits—for example, by cutting as much firewood as they can sell—and warned that this behavior will inevitably produce a “tragedy of the commons” (1), such as a stripped forest that no longer produces wood for anyone. But in laboratory simulations of such social dilemmas, the outcome is not always tragedy. Instead, a basic finding is that humans do not universally maximize short-term self-benefits, and can cooperate to produce shared, long-term benefits (2, 3). Similar findings have come from field studies of commonly managed resources (67). It has been challenging, however, to directly relate laboratory findings to resource conditions in the field, and identify the conditions that enhance cooperation. On page 961 of this issue, Rustagi et al. (8) help fill this gap. In an innovative study of Ethiopia's Oromo people, they use economic experiments and forest growth data to show that groups that had a higher proportion of “conditional cooperators” were more likely to invest in forest patrols aimed at enforcing firewood collection rules—and had more productive forests. They also show that other factors, including a group's distance to markets and the quality of its leadership, influenced the success of cooperative management.