Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ecological Social Science

Most of us understand that human actions are a major influence on ecology and discussion of climate control, air pollution and other ecological topics of global and local importance should not be studied without considering the impact of humans on nature. Moran's book with the same title gives a very complete overview of this new subject: the combination of ecology and social sciences. The book reviews the differences in the viewpoints and methods; it mentions many of the studies carried out and the models they use.

I missed a substantive insight, how natural and social systems interact and I was surprised that the political influence is dealt with in about 4 pages on political economy and political ecology. The book forced me to think about my personal understanding of 'social ecology':

Taking global warming as the most pressing problem, I use from Ostrom the insight, that trust among participants is necessary. It is hard to see, how trust can be built, if the major players (U.S.A. and China) are not accepting rules to play by and one of them (U.S.A.) reserves for themselves the right to a much larger appropriation than the proportional share. It is hard to see how to establish rules acceptable to all with this start point.

It seems that we live in a world with one superpower. The developed countries, under U.S. leadership, try to maintain their high level of resource appropriation. I see cooperation with the elites in the lesser developed countries, elites, who maintain equally high level of resource utilization. I imagine a economic model with only 3 players: (1) the population in the developed countries, (2) the elites and (3) the poor populations in the lesser developed countries. If each player serves his own interest, development will not happen and resource utilization will remain skewed. The majority of the world population is in the third group (poor population in lesser developed countries), making for a dangerous, non-equilibrium situation.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons" (Eleonore Ostrom: Governing the Commons)

The book by 2009 Nobel price laureate Eleonor Ostrom is one of the most positive books I have recently read; it gives rise to optimism: first, for the management of common resources - which include climate and natural habitats, and second, for a realistic and empirically grounded social science, producing applicable theories.

A commons was the communal pasture in a village, where every farmer could herd as much cattle as he wanted. More cows on the commons means more milk to the farmer, thus every farmer in his own best interest increased the number of cows, even though the aggregate action of all farmers will destroy the pasture and at the end all will lose. The effects of 'best self-interest action' by the individuals lead seemingly inevitably to a loss of the resource for all. This was described by Garrett Hardin as "The Tragedy of the Commons" (Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (December 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248) and it is empirically observable in many instances - the fishing industry and groundwater pumping are current examples in the public eye.

Fortunately, not all Common Pool Resources (CPR) follow the this route to destruction; alpine meadows on several continents are managed communally for centuries, irrigation systems in many traditional communities have functioned for 'time immemorial'. Eleonor Ostrom has carefully collected empirical studies of CPR management which have worked and distilled a set of principles which help to avoid the tragedy:
1. clearly defined boundary of the resource and the community it serves,
2. congruence between the rules of using the resource (appropriation rules) and the contributions (provision rules),
3. institutions to allow collective decisions making,
4. monitoring the resource and its use,
5. sanctions for violation are graduated (going from very small to substantial for repeated offenders),
6. conflict-resolution mechanism,
7. the right of the community to organize is recognized by higher level authorities.

If the monitoring methods are simple and infractions easily observable by others, trust among participants is emerging. Ostrom analyzes cases where the 'tragedy was played out' and identifies as causes: (1) a lack of political will to enforce rules, (2) complex rules based on not easily observed facts, requiring a costly staff, which is likely not functioning, and (3) general interference of higher levels of government with the local people who depend on the resource for their livelihood.

The book is an example for a new kind of social science, avoiding hypothetical examples, which cannot exist in reality (e.g. perfect markets), but starting with careful empirical studies, collecting qualitative and not only quantitative figures to analyze institutions and to deduce conditions under which the tragedy can be avoided.

For GIscience, the book is relevant as it points out that (1) studies of mechanism of a CPR based on natural science only are not sufficient but the interaction with the community exploiting the resource must be included and (2) the cost of the management rules must be considered: information collection, processing and later enforcement of rules can be expensive and ruin in practice a theoretically nice solution.