Who cares about tomorrow´s world? Insights from behavioural economics: How to ensure a future world worth living in

A new version of the public goods game by Harvard University researchers demonstrates that, under democratic governance conditions, most people are willing to co-operate to conserve resources for the future. (Illustration by Nature)

A new version of the public goods game by Harvard University researchers demonstrates that, under democratic governance conditions, most people are willing to co-operate to conserve resources for the future. (Illustration by Nature, click to see animation)

While recharge.green project focuses on reconciling biodiversity conservation and renewable energy development in the Alps, the project also needs to consider broader questions concerning the use of natural resources. Biodiversity conservation requires long-term commitments and inter-generational co-operation with people who have not even been born. How can today´s policy makers stimulate people to unselfishly co-operate for a future world?

Classic economic theory predicts that individuals will always act to maximize self-interest. The often cited “tragedy of the commons”, according to which individuals act independently and selfishly, prompting decisions that harm the collective’s long-term interests (Hardin 1968), has been much criticized. For one, it confuses common property and open access resources. Both can be subject to overuse and potential destruction, but common property resources are often subject to regulating social arrangements that maintain the resource (e.g. pastures with grazing rights), while open access are essentially ungoverned and therefore perceived as a “free for all”. In the case of the commons, as Ostrom (e.g. 2008) and others have shown, resources are often effectively managed for the good of an entire community, at least at a local level.   In his much-discussed book The Evolution of Cooperation Robert Axelrod (1984) maintains that collective restraint can serve to induce self-interested individuals to co-operate.

But what happens when people are asked to co-operate not with colleagues or members of their own community, but with abstract, unborn “future generations”? Who cares about tomorrow´s world? How can we entice people to co-operate with those yet to be born? These questions have remained largely unsolved.

Now, researchers at Harvard University have devised a unique version of a commonly used “public goods game” to test under what circumstances people are willing to preserve resources for future generations.

In their experiments they found that, if people were allowed to choose freely how much of a desirable resource to use (as is the case with open access resources), the supply quickly ran out, leaving nothing for the future. Even though a majority of people in the game were willing to preserve resources for next generations, a few spoilers (typically 1 in 5 players) acted as selfish grabbers, resulting in the depletion of the resource. In a different version of the game, each participant was asked to vote how much of the resource should be exploited. Subsequently, the votes were averaged and each individual in the group could only take out the median number of the group votes.. The surprising finding was that most people vote altruistically, leading to preservation of the resource. Using a median eliminated the uncooperative extreme votes and allowed the majority, who care about the common good, to use the resource sustainably. In other words, a democratic process succeeded to reassure those with a tendency to co-operate and to keep the selfish minority (the “grabbers”) from exhausting the resource.   The researchers emphasize that voting works only if the results are binding for all involved. Their results are published in the article “Cooperating with the future” in a recent issue of Nature (Hauser et al. 2014).

Most people agree that preserving resources for future generations is important, but nobody wants to get the short end of the stick. Simplistically assuming that everyone is selfish is an uninformed mistake. Today, policy makers must develop strategies that consider, value and compensate present-day altruistic attitudes towards future generations. Importantly, as the Harvard experiments imply, policy interventions need to be binding for all to re-assure the majority willing to co-operate that others will not reap an unfair share. Mere voluntary approaches (e.g. non-binding agreements like the Kyoto Protocol) designed to ensure biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of resources, are unlikely to work.






Axelrod, Robert M. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

Hardin, G. 1968. ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. Science 162 (3859): 1243–48. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243.

Hauser, Oliver P., David G. Rand, Alexander Peysakhovich, and Martin A. Nowak. 2014. ‘Cooperating with the Future’. Nature 511 (7508): 220–23. doi:10.1038/nature13530.

Ostrom, E. 2008. ‘The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources’. Environment. https://www.ble.ac.uk/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_id=_430_1.

About Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

“I am passionate about nature and mountains, so it is quite satisfying to be involved in a project that seeks a balanced approach to using and protecting the diverse natural resources in the Alps.” _ Karin Svadlenak-Gomez, Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Lead Partner support in project management and public relations of the recharge.green project

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