MSEAS 2016 Simon Levin: Dealing with public goods and common-pool resources

Including the human dimension in Integrated Ecosystem Assessments is the aim of MSEAS 2016 which takes place this week, 30 May–3 June in Brest, France.
Published: 2 June 2016

​​​​​​​​Ecological and economic systems are alike in that individual agents compete for limited resources, evolve their behaviors in response to interactions with others, and form exploitative as well as cooperative interactions as a result. In his keynote address, Simon Levin explored some common features of these systems, describing examples from bacteria and slime molds to vertebrate groups to insurance arrangements in human societies and international agreements on environmental issues.​ Levin, an ecologist from the US, is currently a Moffett Professor of Biology in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Princeton University.​ 

Dealing with public goods and common-pool resources​

Across ecosystems and their linked socio-economic contexts, broad-scale patterns emerge from interactions among individual agents, at scales below those of the whole systems.​​ Such systems have been referred to as complex adaptive systems (Holland 1995, Levin 1998), meaning that they are composed of individual agents that interact ​​with each other locally, with consequences that spread to the whole system and ultimately feed back to affect individual behaviors.

Managing complex adaptive systems for collective benefits presents substantial challenges (Levin et al. 2013, Arrow 2014).  The dynamics of such systems play out on a range of spatial, temporal and organizational scales. Emergent patterns are to some extent unpredictable (Jacob 1977), with the potential for multiple outcomes depending on initial conditions and random events during development. The potential for contagious spread and systemic risk is ever-present. Whereas interest is often in preserving system properties, the levers of influence may be at lower levels of organization, for example individual fishermen.  In such situations, there is an inherent conflict between the interests of individuals and the interests of societies, and resolution of such conflicts is perhaps the greatest challenge in dealing with such systems.

Marine ecosystems are prototypical complex adaptive systems, in which the combined effects of climate change and harvesting pressures, confounded by overlapping national authorities, have led to the collapse of many fish stocks, and loss of robustness of the biological communities of the oceans. Fisheries are common-pool resources, which the many have interest in preserving, but in which cooperation in the collective good is difficult to achieve because of individual incentives. The oceans are thus also prototypical examples of Commons (Lloyd 1833), in which a  potential Tragedy of management exists (Hardin 1968). Hardin's well-cited solution to this challenge was "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon"; but it was left to Ostrom (Ostrom 1990) and others she influenced to demonstrate how such mutual coercion can arise endogenously.

The achievement of  "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon," has always confronted societies at local levels, and solutions have taken a variety of forms (Lansing 1993, Ostrom 1996). Insurance arrangements provide one mechanism (Dixit et al. 2012), as do social norms that penalize those that violate behaviors that are "mutually agreed upon" (Fehr et al. 2002) (Tavoni et al. 2011).  But these are local solutions; and global environmental problems, like those involving marine resources, are another thing altogether.  Local solutions do not easily scale up to the broader level, where feedback loops are weaker and prosociality less observed.  There is hope in Ostrom's ideas of polycentricity (Ostrom 2009); this is a highly promising area, but one where research is just beginning (Hannam 2015).


Arrow, K., Ehrlich, P., and S.A. Levin. . 2014. Some perspectives on linked ecosystems and socio-economic systems. . In Environment and Development Economics: Essays in Honor of Sir Partha Dasgupta, ed. S. Barrett et al.,  Springer-Verlag: 95-116.

Dixit, A., S. A. Levin, and D. I. Rubenstein. 2012. Reciprocal Insurance Among Kenyan Pastoralists. Theoretical Ecology.

Fehr, E., U. Fischbacher, and S. Gachter. 2002. Strong reciprocity, human cooperation and the enforcement of social norms. Human Nature 13:1-25.

Hannam, P. M. a. V., Vítor V. and Levin, Simon A. and Pacheco, Jorge M. 2015. Incomplete cooperation and co-benefits: deepening climate cooperation with a proliferation of small agreements. Cimatic Change.

Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Sciences 162:1243-1248.

Holland, J. 1995. Hidden Order. How Adaptation Builds Complexity. Addison Wesley, Reading, MA.

Jacob, F. 1977. Evolution and tinkering. Sciences 196:1161-1166.

Lansing, J. S. 1993. Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Levin, S., T. Xepapadeas, A. S. Crepin, J. Norberg, A. De Zeeuw, C. Folke, T. Hughes, K. Arrow, S. Barrett, G. Daily, P. Ehrlich, N. Kautsky, K. G. Maler, S. Polasky, M. Troell, J. R. Vincent, and B. Walker. 2013. Social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems: modeling and policy implications. Environment and Development Economics 18:111-132.

Levin, S. A. 1998. Ecosystems and the biosphere as complex adaptive systems. Ecosystems 1:431-436.

Lloyd, W. F. 1833. Two Lectures on the Checks to Population (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, England, 1833), . (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, England, 1833),.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Ostrom, E. 1996. Incentives, rules of the game, and development. Pages 207-234 in World Bank, editor. Proceedings of the Annual World Bank Conference on Development Economics, 1995. World Bank, Washington, DC.

Ostrom, E. 2009. A polycentric approach for coping with climate change. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5095.

Tavoni, A., M. Schluter, and S. Levin. 2011. The survival of the conformist: Social pressure and renewable resource management. Journal of Theoretical Biology.

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MSEAS 2016 Simon Levin: Dealing with public goods and common-pool resources

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