Can we nudge green cooperation?

In Blog by Iranzu Monreal

14 October, 2019

Dr. Rebecca Koomen


Can we nudge green cooperation?


Imagine, if you will, that you’re participating in a resource dilemma. This shouldn’t be hard. We are all actually, at this very moment, participating in the largest resource dilemma our species has ever seen.

Let’s go on to say you’re an employee of a company. Let’s also say you love going on vacation with your family. You vote. You like sushi. You pay taxes, write thank you cards, and call your mum regularly. You do your laundry on Sundays and never (well, almost never) forget to bring the recycling out on Tuesday nights.

Now, let’s get back to your (our) resource dilemma. What even is a resource dilemma?

Generally speaking, it’s a type of competitive trap over natural resources in which our individual short-term needs are at odds with our long-term collective needs.

Essentially, we’re all better off if all of us fly less, recycle more, reduce our dependence on plastics & red meat, and take the train instead of driving to work every day.

But, on the other hand, it’s better for you to go ahead and fly to Tenerife for some relaxing beach time next week. It’s also better for you to drive to work today, otherwise you would’ve had to get up 20 minutes earlier and that’s not part of your normal routine. And tonight, when you meet your friend for dinner, it’ll be better for you to order sashimi instead of the more sustainable veggie option because sashimi is delicious. (These apply equally to me.) You’re better off continuing to live life as normal. We all are. Except for the fact that we all lose in the long-term if we all do what’s best for ourselves in the short-term. That’s a resource dilemma. This scenario, multiplied by all of our lives, all of our decisions, all of our corporations, institutions and inequalities, has led to the climate crisis we now find ourselves in.

In the past, economists thought of resource dilemmas as leading inevitably to environmental destruction. One even coined the term the ‘tragedy of the commons’ to describe the unavoidable collapse of natural resources when we all decide individually how to use them. Once involved in a resource dilemma, they argued, the rational choice for anyone is to continue consuming at the expense of the group. It’s a recipe for predictable demise. Because, when I eat sashimi, I alone feel the benefits (i.e. deliciousness), but the costs of my sashimi eating choices (i.e. overfishing) are shared by all of us. I get to eat all the delicious fish while you all help share the ecological burden of my meal choices (thank you, by the way).

The tragedy of the commons says I’m rational for continuing to eat fish, because likely so will you, and some day when our oceans have more plastic than fish in them, this will be the result we all knew would happen all along but were powerless to stop, because, rationality.

But then a political economist named Elinor Ostrom came along and turned the other economists’ doomsday prediction on its head. By studying our behaviour in real communities around the world – think fishing communities and irrigation-dependent towns – she showed that communities are entirely capable of cooperating to avoid environmental tragedy. When certain conditions are met, we’re able to shift what’s ‘rational’ to align more with the group’s long-term benefits. In short, with the right social building blocks, small groups of us can (and do!) work together to use resources sustainably. Dr. Ostrom called these social building blocks design principles.

Elinor Ostrom went on to become a Nobel laureate, and along the way she collaborated with an evolutionary biologist named David Sloan Wilson. Together, they realised that the design principles resembled closely the same set of things that support group collaboration in other contexts, not just in resource dilemmas. Even more, they recognised that these design principles influence cooperative behaviours across the animal kingdom – they don’t just apply to humans.

Sadly, Elinor Ostrom passed away in 2012. Since then, David Sloan Wilson has put the core design principles to work, applying real-world programmes to help groups of all kinds work better together. He and his team offer a group collaboration consulting service called PROSOCIAL and they collect data from each group they work with to help iteratively improve the system. Whether it’s a matter of employee in-fighting or a political action group trying to more efficiently combine ideas, their programme aims to strengthen each group’s core design principles to maximise the chances that our innate cooperative skills can shine through.

Meanwhile, the behavioural science community has been beavering away at finding solutions to change people’s behaviour for the benefit of the environment. Behavioural economics-inspired “green nudges” have sprouted up across a range of sectors with a variety of methods and levels of effectiveness. More on these later, but for now let’s just say that green nudges use human decision-making principles to re-design the context in which people make decisions about resources. Green nudges make it more likely that people will make a sustainable choice rather than a wasteful choice. The key point here is that green nudges operate most often on an individual level by influencing the behaviour of many individuals at a time.

Many have argued (e.g. Martin Lukacs) that solving our biggest resource dilemma, the climate crisis, will require behaviour change that is leaps and bounds more scaled-up than a collection of individual decisions like you and I deciding to forgo meat every Monday or shower for 3 minutes instead of 7.

What we may well need is a complete overhaul of how we collectively behave with resources.

Before she died, Elinor Ostrom asked of us a daunting question: Will the lessons learned from small-scale communities in resource dilemmas scale up to the modern global environmental crisis we now find ourselves in?

As an applied behavioural scientist, I answer her with a few questions of my own:

  1. Can we use behavioural science to address collective behaviour in addition to individual behaviour?
  2. Can we apply green nudges that shift the decision paradigm from ‘shall I use less of this resource today?’ to one of a much grander scale, like ‘shall we organise ourselves to use this resource together in a way that benefits us all tomorrow, today?'
  3. Can we combine the core design principles with choice architecture to foster collective action over the environment?
  4. Can we nudge green cooperation?

    In this blog, I’ll be addressing these and other big questions. Join me in discussions on the intersection of behavioural science and the environment. I’ll explore a wide range of topics — from fairness and ethics in green nudging, to psychological barriers for sustainability.

    Read, share, post, comment, ask questions, and write to me anytime.