Maintaining cooperation in social-ecological systems:

Effective bottom-up management often requires sub-optimal resource use


Natural resources are vulnerable to over-exploitation 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 ‘second-best’ 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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We thank Matthew Burgess, Alessandro Tavoni, Maja Schlüter, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments. The National Science Foundation provided financial support for this work through Dimensions of Biodiversity grant OCE-1046001 and grants GEO-1211972 and EF-1137894. Additional funding was provided by the Nordforsk-funded project Green Growth Based on Marine Resources: Ecological and Socio-Economic Constraints (GreenMAR) and by the Army Research Office Grant W911NF-14-1-0431.

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Correspondence to Andrew R. Tilman.

Appendix: Parameters

Appendix: Parameters

Parameter Description
R Fish stock biomass
f c Fraction of cooperators
r Intrinsic growth rate of fish population
k Carrying capacity of fish
q Catchability of fish
n Number of fishers
e i Effort of strategy i
π i Profit of strategy i
U i Utility of strategy i
p Unit price of fish
w Unit cost of effort
ω(f c ) Ostracism function
h Maximum value of ostracism function
d L Relative effort of independent harvesters
c L Relative effort level of cooperators
S R Slope of resource nullcline
\(S_{f_{c}}\) Slope of strategy nullcline
γ Cost to ostracize an individual

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Tilman, A.R., Watson, J.R. & Levin, S. Maintaining cooperation in social-ecological systems:. Theor Ecol 10, 155–165 (2017).

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  • Commons
  • Cooperation
  • Evolutionary game theory
  • Social-ecological systems
  • Fisheries
  • Human behavior
  • Sustainability
  • Coupled natural-human systems
  • Collective action