Classroom Materials

Sustainability and Behavior

Global goals require collective action

Today's global society faces major challenges in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, including sustainable resource use, social equality, and providing access to good education, health and human well-being for all.


Image source: UN Department of Public Information (Guidelines)

These challenges require an unprecedented level of cooperation at every level of society, including the global scale. What can we learn from the communities of the world, from our evolutionary history, from our everyday behaviors and experiences, and from other living beings about how to navigate these challenges of cooperation? Research from biology, economics, psychology, anthropology, behavioral and sustainability science provides insights into the conditions and principles for sustainable cooperation across a diversity of contexts. In this light, an understanding of the origins and complex dynamics of human social behavior can help students understand today's challenges of collaboration and collective problem-solving around our shared interests in a better future.

The "Tragedy of the Commons" and strategies for sustainability

Sustainable development is about working together to create and sustain shared natural and social resources .

Common-pool resources (also known as a commons) are resources that are shared by a community and are limited in some way. Often, the more someone uses the resource, the less there is left for the others in the community. Examples of commons are groundwater supplies, fisheries, forests, the atmosphere, public roads and parks, the budget of a community project, even the amount of time in a classroom can be considered as a shared resource in this way. There is often a dilemma in using such resources: the individual may have an interest in using as much of the resource as possible (or contributing as little as possible to preserving the resource or achieving a project's goal). After all, their behavior has no immediate negative consequences. Problems can arise when too many people in the community do so, potentially endangering the entire resource, with negative consequences for all.

This is called the 'tragedy of the commons', an important concept in evolutionary, behavioral, and sustainability sciences.

Many communities rely on a shared or common-pool resource (the 'commons'). What prevents some individuals from taking as much of the resource as possible?
If some are taking more from the resource, this entices others to increase their resource use as well. After all nobody wants to be "the fool".
However, if everyone takes more and more, resource availability is jeopardized for all. This is the tragedy of the commons.

The ecologist Garret Hardin popularized the dilemma of the commons in a 1968 published article "The Tragedy of the Commons", using the example of a village pasture shared by several farmers. Hardin suggested that there are only two possible solutions to ward off tragedy: enforcing rules by a central government ("Freedom in the commons brings ruin to all."); or privatization of the resource ("Private property plus inheritance is injust... but injustice is preferable to total ruin.").

Hardin assumed that in a situation of common usage, we can not simply rely on the conscience or "moral feelings" of individuals. After all, selfish individuals would have a (selective) advantage, and conscientious users would be exploited.

Garret Hardin

Image source: Garret Hardin Society

However, in the 1990s, political scientist Elinor Ostrom and colleagues studied a variety of commons around the world, such as fisheries, shared irrigation systems, forests, and pastures. She wanted to find out how communities in the world manage their common resources, and to what extent they are able to ward off the tragedy of the commons.

She found that certain factors and conditions of the user's resource and social circumstances, as well as user community institutions and behaviors have a strong impact on whether communities can successfully use and manage their resource in a sustainable way. From her work, Elinor Ostrom identified eight important "design principles" for the management of community resources.

Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists have recognized that these design priniciples can be transferred to understand cooperation among various human groups and other living beings more broadly.

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on understanding democratic strategies for solving the tragedy of the commons across so many contexts.

Elinor Ostrom

Image Source: Holger Motzkau 2010 / Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Ostrom's 8 principles for successful cooperation

1 Group identity and common goals: It is clear and accepted locally, who belongs to a group, and all members have common goals.

2 Fair distribution of costs and benefits: The costs incurred by members of a cooperation are distributed in proportion to their benefits from the cooperation.

3 Collaborative decision-making: Most individuals in the group can participate in decisions that affect them, set or change the rules of the game.

4 Monitoring agreed upon behaviors: The community observes and monitors how a resource is used by all, how its condition develops, whether everyone behaves according to the rules, and to what extent common goals are achieved.

5 Graduated sanctions: Sanctions start at a low level, but are exacerbated by repeated violations of commonly agreed rules.

6 Fast and fair conflict resolution: There are local arenas and mechanisms for the quick, efficient and direct resolution of conflicts among members or with other groups.

7 Recognition of rights and autonomy: the group has a minimum of rights to set its own rules in relation to its sphere of common purpose.

8 Nested institutions: Groups are nested on many levels, with each level requiring principles 1-7 (polycentric governance).

The importance of social emotions and intuitions for human behavior

Homo oeconomicus or Homo sapiens?

For a long time in economics, the model of homo oeconomicus was considered an acceptable approach to describing human nature and behavior. Humans are self-serving, rational maximizers of profit, primarily interested in drawing as much material gain as possible from the environment and from our relationships with others in the short term. If one wants people to behave in a certain way, one only has to create enough material incentives, e.g. through discounts, bonuses, penalties, taxes, etc.

Garrett Hardin's prediction that the sustainable use of a common-pool resource can be realized only through privatization or central government was based on the assumption that people generally act in the pattern of Homo oeconomicus.

However, in the last two decades, this model and its utility has been more and more questioned. The research field of behavioral economics has begun to investigate how people actually behave in relationships and interactions with other people - does their behavior reflect the model of Homo oeconomicus?

Some findings from behavioral economics:

  • Humans often do not act as "selfishly" as had been assumed. Humans seem to care about having a good conscience, prosocial values ​​and respecting social norms. Humans do not seem to be only striving for material profit. Even the meaning of the terms "selfishness" and "altruism" had to be rethought (e.g. is it selfish when someone helps another person because it feels good?).
  • Humans often do not act as "rationally" as had been supposed. People often act intuitively, guided by (social) emotions, intuitions and internalized social norms (e.g. How do others around me behave? What behavior do others expect from me?). Even the meaning of the term "rationality" had to be rethought (e.g. is it irrational if someone acts by a gut feeling, when the consequence of the action nonetheless contributes to the person's long-term well-being?)
  • People are often (but not always) capable and willing to organize collectively for the common good (eg. for the sustainable use of community resources), without private property or top-down mangement, and they accept personal costs for doing it.
  • Material incentives (e.g. monetary rewards) can "backfire" or become a "self-fulfilling prophecy". People can become material profit maximizers (i.e. homo economicus) if they feel that other people are also self-interested material maximizers or if it is percieved that social preferences, values ​​and social norms do not matter to other people around them.

Most of these findings are actually famiiliar to us from our own everyday experience.

The question is what factors influence people's behavior - what role do emotions, beliefs and intuitions, individual experiences, genes, the social and cultural environment, and immediate environmental conditions play? And how can or should we use answers to these questions to promote the achievement of societal goals for human well-being and sustainable development?

Our moral intuitions

Sense of fairness

Fair distribution of resources, costs and benefits among members is one of the conditions for the sustainable development of a community. Because of the importance of group life in the course of human evolution, a sense of fairness is part of our evolutionary heritage. In many conflicts in everyday life and in society, our sense of fairness comes into play.

Our sense of fairness is one of our human "moral intuitions". Almost all people, regardless of their culture or social background, seem to have a sense of fairness, even if groups and humans vary in how it manifests itself and in what situations it is expressed. For example, people care about fairness in relation to different kinds of groups, some people care more about fairness as "equal benefits for everyone", some care more about "benefits in proportion to contribution", and probably many of us feel something in between depending on the situation.

In addition to the sense of fairness, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has identified a series of other, possibly universal, moral intuitions of humans around the world. These moral intuitions shape our reasoning about what is good and bad, normal and unnormal, right and wrong, important and unimportant. Moral intuitions have a strong influence on our opinions and behaviors, especially regarding ethically-charged issues in human groups, including issues of sustainable development.

Understanding a little bit about how our evolved social brains process moral questions and ethical dillemmas provides one bridge to having a more flexible conversation about the complex issues that face every level of society.