A study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B models how social cooperation influences the way communities share natural resources. The researchers found that under some conditions, one community achieving stably sustainable resource management can actually prevent others from doing the same. Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers, Savanah district

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No community or ecosystem is an island

Why thinking global and acting local can actually undermine sustainability at larger scales, and how to make sure that it doesn’t

Story highlights

  • Researchers aim to understand how behaviours of local communities can influence more global changes
  • They studied communities relying on shared resources, testing whether sustainable resource use by one community also promotes sustainable resource use by other communities
  • The study demonstrates that social interaction between communities plays an important role in determining the impact of local resource management practices at larger scales

Shared values and trust form the foundation of strong communities but is it possible to measure cooperation between communities when it comes to sustainably sharing resources?

The answer is not so simple, but a recent study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B takes on this challenge and models how social cooperation influences the way communities share natural resources.

Centre researchers Andrew K. Ringsmuth, Steven J. Lade, and Maja Schlüter investigated interactions within and between communities to test how this process could promote sustainable resource-use.

Modelling such cross-scale interactions is largely unexplored territory and the new study rises to the challenge.

The Anthropocene is characterized by global changes emerging from local human–environment interactions.

Andrew K. Ringsmuth, lead author

Conformity is no tragedy

Considering cooperation within and between communities, the researchers modelled how individuals and groups interact to exchange knowledge and enforce agreements related to resource use.

They modelled this across different levels in order to paint a more holistic picture of the role social interactions play in resource management. An important component of these interactions, the authors stress, is to use information about resource availability to make an informed group decision on the rate at which a resource can be used. This decision then forms the basis for standards that communities set and expect members to follow.

For example, a social norm of socially optimal resource harvesting involves a community agreeing to restrain its harvesting to a sustainable rate and expecting its members to conform.

However, each individual is also tempted to defect from this norm and overuse the resource for personal profit, which can push the system towards a resource collapse, an outcome known as a ‘tragedy of the commons’.

To counteract this tendency, norm co-operators enforce the norm by sanctioning defectors. The evolving balance between individual temptation and social pressure from the community determines how individuals and, ultimately, whole communities manage the shared resource.

Resisting temptations

An adage of sustainability encourages us to ‘think global, act local’. However, the researchers found that under some conditions, one community achieving stably sustainable resource management can actually prevent others from doing the same. This is because the resource left unused by one community is an added temptation for members of the other communities, making it harder for them to conform to the agreed level of restraint.

However, lead author Ringsmuth explains, “Enforcing norms between communities resolves this because increased cooperation in one community encourages cooperation in the other.”

A key finding of this research is that cooperation between communities can act as a catalyst for sustainable resource management even when there is a lack of strong relationships and sharing of resources to begin with.

Weak links can have strong effects. If previously unfamiliar communities proactively communicate about how to manage shared resources, they help to ensure mutual benefit in the long run.

“Collaborative norm setting is, therefore, an investment which can later increase the power of social pressure as a resource-sustaining mechanism,” Ringsmuth concludes.

This can help to strengthen willingness to cooperate over time, while also acting as a safeguard against threats that could break these collaborative ties.

Finally, the authors note that their method of modelling across scales could be useful for other scenarios of resource management too, suggesting that social pressure can be part of a wider suite of mechanisms for sustainable management from local to global.


The researchers modelled how social interactions within and between communities affect whether they are able to sustainably manage a shared resource. They used a mathematical model to represent interactions of communities with a shared resource and with each other, studying how social interactions and the availability of the resource together affect community members’ decisions about resource use.

The researchers designed their model based on harvesting water from an aquifer as an example of renewable resource use. They borrowed a technique from physics to produce the first mathematical model which explicitly models both bottom-up and top-down cross-scale interaction dynamics in a social-ecological system.

Using this model, the researchers studied how communities can share information and enforce agreements to protect against excessive use of resources. They modelled how communities enforcing a certain standard of resource use can influence surrounding communities and affect the system overall.

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Published: 2019-11-12


Ringsmuth, A.K., Lade, S.J., Schlüter, M. 2019. Cross-scale cooperation enables sustainable use of a common-pool resource. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 286Proc. R. Soc. B

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Andrew Ringsmuth is a postdoctoral researcher within the MuSES project, developing mathematical and computational models of multiscale dynamics and cross-scale interactions in social-ecological systems.

Maja Schlüter’s research focusses on analysing and explaining the co-evolutionary dynamics of social-ecological system with the aim to develop Social-Ecological Systems theory.


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