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Sustainable development as a “collective choice” problem: theoretical and practical implications - SD14003

The objective of the proposed research is to explore thoroughly the potential of a highly promising and unique body of research, known as “collective-action theory”, for achieving Defra’s goal of finding new ways of motivating people to produce and consume in a sustainable manner. Although this work makes use of formal analytical models, it is largely inductive and based on the comparative analysis of cases where groups of local people have successfully achieved this kind of collective action on their own. That is, the theory emerged from the comparative study of a great number of situations throughout the world where people have agreed among themselves, out of simple necessity, to restrain their individual consumption of a resource that is shared within the group and is vital to the life and livelihood of each individual member. Such collective action, although fundamentally driven by a resource scarcity, can nevertheless be characterized as the rational pursuit by ‘self-interested’ individuals of a mutually-recognized common benefit or public good. Being relatively new and evidence-based, “collective-choice theory” (as it is also known) is particularly relevant to the challenge that Defra and other agencies in the UK and the EU are now trying, with a renewed sense of urgency, to address in novel ways. The theory is most innovative in the manner in which it frames problems of this general type, as posing a challenge to a group of resource-users whose fates are intertwined and whose individual choices will inevitably interact, either positively or negatively, to produce an effect on the group in the long run. Expectations regarding other peoples’ decisions are thus central to individual motivation and have to be taken into account from the start by making their discussion and modeling a part of the decision-making situation itself. Such situations of collective choice are immanently social, reflexive, and predictive exercises where the anticipated behavior of other people plays a crucial role in either strengthening or weakening the incentives that individuals have to cooperate and to exercise self-restraint. People in these situations also show a primary concern with minimizing the risk that some resource users who fail to cooperate will receive the benefits of the group decision nevertheless, and thus be able to “free ride”.

Hundreds of cases of cooperation and mutual restraint in the use of “common property resources” have been documented throughout the world during the last two decades, among user-groups of widely varying scales and sizes, in the largest and most productive program of comparative field research ever done in the social sciences (N.R.C. 1986; Bromley 1986; McCay and Acheson 1987; Ostrom 1986, 1987;1990; Burger, Norgaard, et. al. 1998; Ostrom, Burger, et. al. 1999; Burger, Ostrom, et. al. 2001; Ostrom, Dietz et. al. 2002; Dolsak and Ostrom 2003). This kind of work, extensively developed and funded in the United States but involving a great number of researchers from many other countries, has for some reason been overlooked by research and policy-making institutions in the UK, including Defra (Defra 2004, 2005; T. Jackson 2005a, 2005b). Thus there exists a major and somewhat ironic gap in the otherwise comprehensive effort by Government to bring about a major feat of collective action by the people of the UK, since this is the very kind of phenomenon that “collective choice theory” is empirically based on and yet seeks both to explain and to encourage to happen more often.

The major insight here for policy-makers is that producers and consumers are best viewed, not as disarticulated individuals making their own separate choices in the “market” (even if those choices are acknowledged to be socially and culturally shaped), but rather as members of real or potentially existing communities and resource-user groups, as people who have a tangible interest in common. The theory would predict that, if any fundamental shift toward sustainability in people’s behavior is to occur, this common interest must first be clearly defined in terms of a particular resource or other demonstrably achievable public good. Then the full range of possible individual choices must be considered in their various combinations and permutations according to their ultimate outcome for the entire group. All of this would require, of course, that people and potential group members be willing to participate in a focus group or some other kind of public forum where these dynamics are discussed and actually simulated or modeled. Only through this kind of collective exercise can a consensus be reached and agreements made that will set up new institutions to shape and reinforce people’s incentives toward more pro-environmental behavior: i.e., through a process of common-value identification and deliberative group choice about the rules that should govern resource consumption.

The proposed project will present and defend in detail--through a lengthy Technical Paper and a shorter Final Summary Report--the hypothesis that these steps are both necessary and sufficient conditions for achieving some of Defra’s most challenging objectives in public participation: 1) the general goal of devising and implementing an effective national policy for motivating sustainable consumption in the long term, and 2) the more specific short-term goal of actually bringing about mutually-beneficial and collective self-restraint among producers and consumers in specific local projects. The latter will include: Pontbren, a farmer-led program for the enhancement of environmental assets in Powys, Mid Wales; and the East Suffolk Water Abstraction Group, a group of arable farmers formed in 1997 in response to an effort by the Environment Agency to decrease groundwater withdrawals.
Project Documents
• Final Report : Sustainable Development as a "Collective Choice" Problem   (266k)
• Information Leaflet : Practical Guide Number 3 - Sustainable Development as a "Collective Choice" Problem   (90k)
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2005

To: 2006

Cost: £23,333
Contractor / Funded Organisations
University - Cranfield
Behaviour change              
Social Research              
Sustainable Development              
Sustainable Production