Conciliating Human Nature and Conservation

When we started this site a few months ago we had the primary objective of sharing what was happening in our field work, starting with Michael in Kerala and myself in Nicaragua.  Writing from Morgan’s Rock, or from Kerala, may have made the posts feel focused on only two locations.  Others have joined in along the way, thankfully, so it is a much broader spectrum geographically and otherwise.  Some of us are back on campus now, and our task remains the same: getting important ideas and examples related to entrepreneurial conservation, and community-based problem solving, out there in a creative forum.

I have decided to bring my work–at Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology and at Cornell Outdoor Education–as well as some of my “book learning” onto the page here.  The main reason for doing the latter is to show that, to put it bluntly, we are not making this stuff up.  Even on our most innovative days in the field, someone has thought about it or done it before, somewhere, sometime.  And that is good news.  So today I thought I would share a bit on the interplay between our basic tendencies and our better selves.

Let’s start with a basic premise: humans respond to incentives. Generally speaking, when cooperation is in their interest, people will work together, but when they have more to gain by going their own way, or “defecting,” they will do so. Appeals to conscience can lack the strength to sustain cooperation; and the hand of government is sometimes too heavy; yet both approaches can yield results, especially when hybridized. Communities can develop cooperative environmental conservation strategies: the key lies in matching individuals’ self-interest with group benefits, thereby finding a balance that takes human nature and local conditions into account and plays those factors off each other to ensure cohesive collaboration.

There are several factors affecting the likelihood of successful cooperation. One of them is group size, as Mancur Olson notes: “Unless the number of individuals in a group is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.” Like Olson, Elinor Ostrom cites group size as an important factor for collective action, but proposes that other variables can be more significant. The two that I find most pertinent are discount rate and reciprocity standards.

A low discount rate (i.e. an inclination to forgo current payoffs for higher payoffs in the future) is almost vital, and as Robert Axelrod explains, “The evolution of cooperation requires that individuals have a sufficiently large chance to meet again so that they have a stake in their future interaction.” In Ostrom’s example of Alanya, Turkey, the fishers will probably live and fish in Alanya all their lives, interacting repeatedly with the same people during that time. When the whole community has a low discount rate, resource management is more effective.

Reciprocity is an integral part of trust, which in turn is the basis of voluntary or successful cooperation. Pretty and Ward define reciprocity as “simultaneous exchanges of items of roughly equal value” or “a continuing relationship of exchange that at any given time may be unrequited, but over time is repaid and balanced.” The famous “tit-for-tat” interaction is a perfect example of reciprocity, and Axelrod shows it has significant practical influence in history and biology as well as theoretically in model tournaments. When a group such as the Alanya fishers interacts uses a “tit-for-tat” strategy, it is in everyone’s interest to cooperate rather than defect. Cooperation will be met with the cooperation, whereas a fisher who takes fish from an undesignated location will be caught and punished, thereby reinforcing sustainable cohesion.

Small groups with low discount rates and established reciprocity norms are more likely to succeed in environmental conservation, but what about larger groups with more variables? Coercion, mentioned by Olson’s quotation above and championed by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 paper, is something that both governments and communities can use to promote cooperation where it might not occur naturally in society. When coercion is, in Hardin’s words, “mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected,” it becomes an accepted form of regulation that in effect sets up official incentives or disincentives—a “tit-for-tat” system—for people’s actions.

Keeping in mind that a human being will generally act primarily in his or her own interest rather than that of the whole community, establishing clear (dis)incentives should help control individual irresponsible activity. Michael Jensen claims, “It is inconceivable that purposeful action on the part of human beings can be viewed as anything other than responses to incentives.” Ridley and Low cite a Michigan study showing differences of over 90% between rates of nonrefundable and refundable recycling as evidence for their proposed “middle way” that avoids privatization and full government regulation of common-pool resources.

This “middle way,” or hybridized approach, is one of carrots and sticks; it relies on the basic assumption that an individual “takes action A over action B because he or she expects A to result in better outcomes.” When applied in accordance with Elinor Ostrom’s most important design principles: ensure congruence between rules and local conditions (2); monitor and verify cooperation (4); and recognize community rules as legitimate by the state (7), the “middle way” is likely the best strategy to conciliate human nature and sustainable environmental conservation.

The following examples of big businesses choosing the environmentally conscious route to their operations show rational responses to the carrots and sticks of a middle way that had been developing since well before Ridley and Low voiced their idea in 1993. When the DuPont chemical company abandoned manufacture of CFCs by 1992, it was not necessarily because the company suddenly realized the damage they were causing to the ozone layer. It was because they would have faced hostility from Congress and the public if they had continued. Similarly, Chevron’s oil rig in New Guinea, which according to Jared Diamond “functions as by far the largest and most rigorously controlled national park in Papua New Guinea,” was not designed to be ecologically protective solely out of love for the environment. Such oil rigs bring Chevron good publicity with gasoline-consumers and a competitive edge in contract bids for oil fields; they lower risks of costly oil spills and anticipate government standards, which are more and more exacting.

Ridley and Low suggest to “make it rational for individuals to act green,” and this has arguably become a key tool in government and community strategy where it pertains to environmental conservation. Humans are rationally self-interested animals who try to choose social situations that will benefit them in the greatest way possible, and keeping this assumption at the forefront of government policy and common resource management is essential for successful conservation practices.

4 thoughts on “Conciliating Human Nature and Conservation

  1. Great Article –
    You’re work, and the work done by other contributors, seems to fit well with the interdisciplinary nature of our department here in the UK
    – Drop me an e-mail so we can touch bases

    Michael Cordingley
    Postgraduate Student
    Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology

  2. Pingback: Climate & Civilization « Raxa Collective

  3. Pingback: Earth Day In Historical Context | Raxa Collective

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