The Science of Cooperation

Societies can achieve environmental sustainability by nurturing cooperation

Photo: Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

A new theory developed by Tim Waring, associate professor in the School of Economics and the Mitchell Center, and colleagues, explains how societies can achieve sustainability by nurturing cooperation.

“Right now, to build sustainable solutions we are reinventing the wheel every time. To avoid that, we need a theoretical framework that allows us to compare cases and accumulate insight so we can get to better solutions faster,” Waring says.

Achieving sustainable resource use is almost never a win-win situation. More often, it requires individuals to accept some kind of personal cost such as reducing consumption, changing habits, or contributing extra effort. This is cooperation.

The new research examines cases of environmental management to discover common patterns that help cooperation and sustainable solutions grow, including two iconic examples from Maine— lobsters and blueberries.

In the lobster industry, competition between groups of lobstermen gave rise to strongly defended territories and encouraged group members to restrict their harvests. This restraint is a type of cooperation, and it helped lobstermen maintain their lobster populations and livelihoods.

Cooperation saved the Maine blueberry industry, too. Blueberry growers never needed to cooperate until a major pest outbreak and economic crisis forced their hands. In a landmark effort, the blueberry industry agreed to tax themselves to support crop research and avoid future crises.

Despite their differences, blueberries and lobsters tell a similar story.

“In both cases, the stakes for failure were high, the costs fell most heavily on groups, and those groups learned from other successful groups allowing sustainable practices to spread,” Waring says. “This is why theory matters. By testing and refining the theory we can become better at nurturing cooperation and building sustainable societies.”

Read more about Waring’s work.