A new study concludes that the threat of reaching a critical tipping point, beyond which the growth rate of the resource will drop drastically, seems to trigger more effective communication within the group. Photo: A. Maslennikov/Azote

Common-pool resource management

Turning disasters into success

Threat of abrupt resource decline can trigger more effective communication and cooperation

Story highlights

  • A new experimental design allows testing how users of a common-pool resource respond to drastic drops in the availability of a resource
  • Most previous experimental research (analysing behavioural aspects) has assumed simple dynamics and rather predictable flows of natural resources
  • Successful management of common-pool resources is not only about improved communication and conflict resolution, the actual ecological reality and how users respond to it also matters

What does it take for users of a forest or a fishery to cooperate in ways that ensure sustainable use of the resources in the long run? This issue has been extensively studied by scholars around the world under the label “common-pool resource management”.

Common-pool resources are resources that typically benefit a group of people, but are likely to be seriously diminished, if each individual pursues his or her own self interest. Such overuse of a common-pool resource, like a pasture or a fishing ground, might lead to the notorious “tragedy of the commons” problem.

Most previous experimental research on the commons has focused on social aspects, like inequality, role of punishment and communication when dealing with a rather predictable flow of a natural resource, without abrupt and surprising changes. This is why centre researchers Therese Lindahl, Anne-Sophie Crépin and Caroline Schill have come up with a novel experimental design that allows testing how users of a common-pool resource respond to drastic drops in the availability of a shared resource.

Their results were recently published in Environmental and Resource Economics. They conclude that the threat of reaching a critical tipping point, beyond which the growth rate of the resource will drop drastically, seems to trigger more effective communication within the group. This in turn can enable stronger commitment for cooperation and more knowledge sharing.

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“The results we have obtained can be seen as one crucial piece of the much bigger puzzle of understanding the interaction between human behaviour and the environment in common-pool resources systems”

Therese Lindahl, lead author

Ecological context matters

Whereas policy recommendations for successful management of common-pool resources often centers on how to improve communication and conflict resolution, the study by Lindahl and colleagues suggests that the actual ecological reality (e.g. a potential abrupt ecological change) that a group faces, and to what extent they understand what that implies , also matters.

That ecological risks can lead to successful collective action has also been seen in real world cases, like irrigation systems in the Northern Philippines, grasslands in Namibia and Brazilian fishing societies, the authors explain.

"A significant contribution of this paper is that we manage to introduce and evaluate an experimental design that is comprehensible for the participants while still allowing for a high degree of complexity of the underlying resource,” they write.

In conclusion, Lindahl and colleagues state that their new experimental design could be adopted and used both in the lab, with students as participants, e.g., serving as a pilot before going into the field, and in the field with real resource users as particpants to learn more about how to overcome the tragedy of the commons in situations when resource users face ecological uncertainty and threshold effects.

The authors believe that this way of combining lab and field experiments with ecological, historical and socio-economic data will lead to better understanding of how users, sharing a resource, make decisions in such contexts.

Along the same lines, a study recently published in PLoS ONE, including some of the same authors, concludes that relevant ecological knowledge, confidence in that knowledge and a willingness to share the knowledge with the others, are essential for a group to use a shared natural resource sustainably.


150 students from the Stockholm University Campus were recruited. They received a show-up fee of SEK 100-150 (10-15 Euros) and were randomly assigned to a group of four students. 20 groups were gathered for a “threshold treatment” (potential abrupt change of resource) and 21 groups for a “no threshold treatment” (no potential abrupt change of resource). All participants were told that each of them represented a resource user, and that, together with the other participants in the group, they had access to a common renewable resource stock from which they could harvest units, each worth SEK 5, over a number of rounds. Individual harvest decisions were anonymous and collected after each decision-making round. The experimenter calculated the sum of the individual harvests as well as the new resource stock size and communicated this to the group after each round. Participants were allowed to discuss their individual harvest rates. The experiment ended either when participants depleted the resource stock or when the experimenter decided to end it, but the exact end-period was unknown to the participants. The experimental data was then analysed statistically and compared to expected outcomes derived from a game theoretic model of strategic interaction between users sharing a renewable resource with or without a threshold.

Published: 2016-11-18


Lindahl, T., Crépin, A-S., and Schill, C. 2016. Potential Disasters can Turn the Tragedy into Success. Environmental and Resource Economics 65: 657. doi:10.1007/s10640-016-0043-1

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Therese Lindahl's research focus is broadly on environmental and resource economics, and more specifically about understanding human behavior as it relates to environmental behavior.

Anne-Sophie Crépin is an environmental and resource economist focusing on resources and services that stem from ecosystems. A substantial part of her work is based on small theoretical dynamic models that combine relevant economic factors with complex ecosystem dynamics.

Caroline Schill is a PhD student at the centre but based at The Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics. n her research, Caroline focuses on interactions between human behaviour and ecosystem dynamics in social dilemmas.


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