How Altruism Self-Replicates and Affects the Commons

By Tovin Gordesky-Hooper


When a market economy is introduced into an area, the local population is incentivized to stop contributing to the commons because this economy predominantly rewards the production of goods for sale: “Under this fundamentally new economic order goods are bought and sold, not shared” (Johannes 1978, p. 356). The free-market economy can increase demand for resources, creating a stronger incentive to put one’s energies into gathering and producing goods for sale. In a free market economy, the exchange of goods is based on supply and demand, with the assumption that more income and goods improve everyone’s quality of life. However, the free market economy also shifts time and effort away from the commons. For some artisanal fishermen: “… to compete effectively he must buy better equipment and fish harder” (Johannes 1978, p. 356). This makes it harder for the fishermen to invest time, money, and energy into the public fishery. Thus, the free market can cause the “tragedy of the commons” in the developing world by increasing demands for goods and decreasing local resource independence (Johannes 1978). For the purpose of this essay, the “tragedy of the commons” is where natural resources are not conserved because there is a personal benefit to taking from the commons but low benefits and cooperation to stop the common pool resources from being degraded.

Notably, these theories surrounding the failures of the free market assume that everyone acts in their own best interests. For example, many criticize the opening up of fisheries to the public because they think that, without regulation of marine tenure, people will harvest too many fish: “If access is not exclusive to local users, many outsiders will compete for the resources and crowd fishing spots. The presence of large numbers of occasional fishermen in Laguna may threaten the [sustainable] resource management model implemented by its community” (Peterson et al. 2008, p. 475). This raises the question of what happens when people do not act selfishly. Will the sustainable use and protection of natural resources be affected when some people use their time or money to benefit the group even when they will “lose out?”  More specifically, what happens when people act outside of their own best interests to make sure that conserving the commons is in the personal interests of others?

The New York Times recently described a program sponsored by the Nature Environment and Wildlife Society that performs such an act of altruism, which is an act that benefits the community as a whole while hindering the one doing that act (Facing Disastrous Floods, They Turned to Mangrove Trees for Protection). The program pays villagers in the Sundarbans to plant a mangrove forest to protect their shorelines against the disastrous effects of climate change. The mangroves act as a barrier to storms, which are exacerbated by climate change. Mangrove trees are also effective at sequestering carbon and hosting beneficial coastal organisms. The mangrove trees act as a commons, or resource held by a community, because the mangrove trees help protect the property and natural resources of many people in the village, not just the property of the people who plant the mangrove trees (Raj 2022). The Nature Environment and Wildlife Society paid villagers to plant mangrove trees where they would best protect local villages from catastrophic storms and flooding (Raj 2022). The altruism of the donors succeeded in helping villagers act altruistically towards their community: “The rhythm of our lives is dependent on the ebb and flow of the water around us, making the mangroves our lifelines” (Raj 2022). While one villager had the idea to implement the plantings before the program existed, the success of the program showed that “financial incentive in environmental restoration efforts is essential in getting local communities to participate …” (Raj 2022). 

This raises the question of why the altruism practiced by the Nature Environment and Wildlife Society was effective at organizing villagers in the Sundarbans, and why the villagers were not able to do that themselves. The New York Times article states that “many men from the Sundarbans migrate to cities for work, meaning it’s the villages’ women who are often leading the climate change fight” (Raj 2022). Since the men need to go to work outside of the village, the work is left up to the women, who are generally discouraged from doing such a project because it would interfere with housework: “‘Who will cook and wash and clean the house if you work? You are the daughter-in-law of the house and must work indoors like we did,’ Ms. Dhara recalled her mother-in-law shouting at her. For many other women in the Sundarbans, the story is similar” (Raj 2022). For some women in the program, the salary that they received persuaded them and their families that it was acceptable for a woman to forgo household duties to help protect the village: “Ms. Dhara persisted, and was able to convince her family that the trees would not only help keep the village safe from floods, but were also a chance to earn extra income” (Raj 2022). The relationship between the free-market economy and the capacity of the community to protect itself is complex and traditional gender roles clearly play a role in the relation between the community and the commons. The need of the community for money as a resource also seems to create a reward structure that is dependent on money. This helped trump traditional female roles, which counteracted the negative effects of the reward structure. The main negative effect was that the men needed to spend their energies outside of the villages to support their families. This certainly made it harder for the community to cooperate and invest their time in the commons. The altruism of the sponsor of the program is a clear example of one act of altruism creating a greater incentive for others to act in the benefits of other people.

The type of altruism in the Sundarbans can also be found closer to home in the conservation of Maine’s lobster fisheries. These fisheries are very much a commons. With the free-market economy encouraging greater production, and limited ability for fishermen to organize, all with no de facto regulation, many would expect few fishermen to follow even basic sustainable harvesting (Acheson & Gardner 2011). But many places have successfully maintained high lobster numbers through de facto voluntary conservation through strategies such as the V-notch practice (Acheson & Gardner 2011). 

The V-notch process is where egg-bearing female lobsters are given a V-shaped notch in their tail (V-Notching – Part 1). This serves as a marker to tell all fishermen who later catch that lobster to release it; that way the lobsters that contribute to the population will be allowed to keep reproducing. The notch stays for life so that the lobster can continue to bear eggs year after year. This increases the lobster population at the expense of fishermen having to release some of their catch. Initially, programs preserving breeding female lobsters were met with resistance from fishermen. Even though laws were passed requiring large females to be released, those laws were generally not followed (Acheson & Gardner 2011). Eventually, fishermen got frustrated when their catches were reduced, which they assumed to be due to overfishing, so they started to hold each other accountable (Acheson & Gardner 2011). The lobster fishermen also started to value conservation and saw the practice of preserving breeding female lobsters as an investment in the future: “I would notch one or two big egged females as a way of investing in the future of the industry. We didn’t have to do it, but the idea caught on and a lot of people began to preserve the proven eggers in this way” (Acheson & Gardner 2011). Eventually, cutting V-shaped notches into the tails of lobsters became the standard way of marking “eggers” for preservation. 

None of this would be possible, however, without the altruistic actions of the fishermen who have been releasing some of their catch for the good of the commons. This altruism seems to spread through the changes of cultural norms. Fishermen spread these norms through communicating values even in the absence of other pressures: “Fishermen who do not V-notch when many others are doing so suffer some loss in reputation” (Acheson & Gardner 2011, p. 7). Most fishermen see the practice as benefiting themselves in the future: “One said, ‘It is just helping yourself in the long run’” (Acheson & Gardner 2011, p. 5). This shows how the cultural norms of some lobster fishermen have reframed an altruistic act into an individualistic ideal of saving for your future. This is not to say that they are unaware that what they are doing is altruistic: “Fishermen take some pride in helping to maintain the lobster stocks” (Acheson & Gardner 2011, p. 5). This clearly implies that they see their actions as being morally right for the common good as well as themselves. This can also be expressed as resentment towards those that do not contribute: “One fisherman said of a non-V-notcher, ‘He is just a freeloader. He is living off us’” (Acheson & Gardner 2011, p. 5).

“None of this would be possible, however, without the altruistic actions of the fishermen who have been releasing some of their catch for the good of the commons.”

This raises the question of how a few acts of altruism could have such an impact: it seems improbable that there is a difference in the nature of the people in the community of lobster fishermen compared to other communities which failed to stop a “tragedy of the commons.” So, if Maine lobster fishermen are not more altruistic, then why were they successful in making altruism a norm in many fisheries? I argue that, like with the villagers in the Sundarbans, a few acts of altruism have the ability to stop the neglect of common natural resources. First of all, a lobster with a V-notch will not be sold because buyers will not buy the illegally caught lobster (Acheson & Gardner 2011). That means that any lobster that is released cannot be used by someone who doesn’t practice V-notching for years. Also, those who choose to altruistically contribute to the common resource have the ability to force others to do the same by reporting offenders to the authorities, making the impact of every altruistic fisherman larger (Acheson & Gardner 2011). Thus, the actions of one person force many others to slow their degradation of the commons.

In short, the claim that the free-market economy encourages the degradation of the commons does not account for people acting outside of their own best interests. I have shown two examples of acts of altruism encouraging others to conserve the commons. In the Sundarbans, the altruism of the leaders of the organization sponsoring the tree plantings rewarded many local women to act for the benefit of their whole village. In coastal Maine, fishermen sanction others to encourage more people to act altruistically. These oversights from a common critique of the free-market economy are important because these examples are replicable. If systems could be set up so that altruistic people can better reward altruism and sanction selfishness, the commons could be conserved without the need to do away with the free market. This means that conservation organizations can help people conserve their surroundings without forcing them to adapt to a new economic system or force actions on them directly. This makes conservation far more achievable and could be applied to commons such as national forests, international fisheries, or even the entire atmosphere. Hopefully, these successes can be replicated.



Acheson, J., and Gardner, R. 2011. “The Evolution of the Maine Lobster V-Notch Practice: Cooperation in a Prisoner’s Dilemma Game.” Ecology and Society 16, no. 1: art. 41.

Johannes, R.E. 1978. “Traditional Marine Conservation Methods in Oceania and Their Demise.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 9: 349-364.

Peterson, D., Hanazaki N., and César Simões-Lopes, P. 2008. “Natural Resource Appropriation in Cooperative Artisanal Fishing between Fishermen and Dolphins (Tursiops Truncatus) in Laguna, Brazil.” Ocean & Coastal Management 51, no. 6: 469–475.

Raj, S. 2022. “Facing Disastrous Floods, They Turned to Mangrove Trees for Protection.” New York Times, April 10, 2022.