Saving the Planet From Ourselves

In his new book, professor Michael Cox examines environmental property rights across cultures and communities. 

The impetus for Michael Cox's new book came in large part from his experience of the siloed nature of academia.

"Academia is fragmented," says Cox, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies. "My primary passion lies in synthesizing ideas across fields. Maintaining cooperation in an academic discipline involves setting boundaries for who is and is not a legitimate disciplinary member. But this creates barriers to cooperation across disciplines. In this book, I wanted to merge them."

Cox himself can be hard to pigeonhole. He is an expert on politics and governance, and has lived among fishers and farmers as part of his research, but he doesn't identify as a political scientist or an anthropologist. Instead, he calls himself an environmental social scientist.

Probably the easiest way of describing Cox is as an "Ostrom person." The late Elinor "Lin" Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics for her work showing that local communities, under the right conditions, could sustainably manage natural resources. Cox was one of her last PhD students at Indiana University, where his dissertation focused on water rights in New Mexico. "A lot of Lin's students don't fit neatly into boxes—partly because she didn't," he says.

"There's a mantra in my field," he says. "There is no 'best.' Too much depends on implementation, personalities, and context, for there to be one policy we should prefer over all others."

Common Boundaries: The Theory and Practice of Environmental Property is Cox's first book. He also co-hosts the In Common podcast, which explores the lives, research, and activities of scholars and practitioners as they promote sustainable human-environment interactions.

Collective action problems figure prominently in the book. What are they?

They happen when the interests of individuals diverge from the group. Individually, we'd like to use more of a shared resource, but collectively that leads to its degradation over time. Communities resolve collective action problems by coming up with informal norms, or formal rules, to change people's incentives and behavior.

But who creates those norms and rules, and who enforces them? That itself creates a second-order collective action problem. We've all seen this in organizations. It's hard to find good leaders and enforcers of rules, because people don't like people who like to police the behavior of other people. Enforcement can be oppressive and unequal, but it can also benefit the group.

There's lots of literature on how different species resolve collective action problems and promote cooperation. My Dartmouth colleague Carey Nadell studies bacterial biofilms as public goods that require collective action to produce. The communal biofilm benefits many bacteria but it's individually costly to produce.
What makes collective problems so hard to solve?

You don't have to be an economist to see that people are self-interested. From an evolutionary point of view, pro-social behavior is hard to explain. When a songbird signals that a predator is coming it creates a public good for the group, but it's also telling the predator where it is. This behavior evolved because it helps the group, but it's costly to the individual. Cooperation within a group can also benefit from conflict between groups. This is what animates nationalism. 

Collective action problems are difficult to solve because they involve multiple groups. Cooperating within a community won't solve your problem. This is an important nuance of the tragedy of the commons. A hundred people in a community might be working together by harming another community.

What's the "tragedy of the commons"?

It's a theory that says that if there are shared resources like a forest or a fishery that people depend on, we will lose it if we don't have rules, institutions, and property rights. Without constraints placed on how that resource is used, people will tend to use it up. The tragedy of the commons is the outcome of a failed collective action problem.

Is climate change a collective action problem?

A stable climate benefits everyone, but the wealthier countries that contribute most to climate change are more buffered from its impacts. An asymmetry of wealth and power makes it harder to sustain a collective interest. I've studied irrigation systems in the Dominican Republic where farmers have a literal upstream-downstream relationship. Farmers upstream can impact the welfare of farmers downstream, but not vice versa.

Climate change is similar; wealthier "upstream" countries can influence poorer countries, but poorer countries don't influence the welfare of the wealthy as much. We are also upstream—in time—of future generations. They depend on us, but not vice versa.

If climate change isn't really a collective action problem, how do we solve it?

Burning fossil fuels produces pollutants besides greenhouse gasses. So you can also think of climate change as a local problem, which may be more feasible to address at lower levels of government. Carbon markets are another approach. In addition to buying and selling rights to emit carbon, you can buy carbon credits that allow you to pay to offset your emissions elsewhere.

Unregulated markets tend to favor the interests of wealthier individuals, but many institutions promote the interests of the wealthy and the powerful, not just markets. Marketizing everything may be naïve but it's just as naïve to dismiss markets as inherently evil. People around the world, including marginalized people, depend on trade for their livelihoods.

A lot of the criticism of carbon markets is about carbon credits and offsets, many of which are unregulated. It's a bit like the Wild West, leading many offset projects to lack additionality, meaning they don't lead to additional carbon storage above and beyond what would have happened. There's been a fair amount of invalid carbon offsets that are allowing companies to continue to pollute while claiming to be moving to net zero.

What other options are there?

A carbon tax would be simpler, but subsidies that promote renewable scaling are easier politically. The challenge there is that renewables may not be "green" at the levels we would need to replace fossil fuels. Renewables may also not displace fossil fuels so much as add to them. By the end of the book, I probably come across as a little more anti-market, but that's partially because markets have received the panacea treatment more than most other policies. We need to be wary about treating something as the solution to all our problems.

What about a community approach?

In Governing the Commons, Ostrom showed that communities could manage their resources and avoid the tragedy of the commons. But communities, like markets, are imperfect. Property rights can be unevenly distributed along gender, racial or ethnic lines. Individuals can disagree, and there can be multiple group interests. I'm not for or against communities. It's like being "for or against" a hammer or a saw. It depends on who's using it and for what purpose.

Did you have any interdisciplinary 'aha' moments writing this book?

I did! Whether it's private property or individual property, people with an intrinsic connection to the environment tend to treat it better. But in the face of a collective action problem, how do you promote cooperation? Evolutionary theory says kinship and reciprocity. If I cooperate with you, you'll pay me back with a hug or money. Human beings are also highly cooperative, and extended kinship is one way we do that.

My friends' children call me Uncle Mike. I'm not their uncle, but thinking of our friends as chosen kin widens the circle of cooperation. Indigenous communities talk about their relationship to the environment with the same two words. Kinship and reciprocity. In Native Hawaiian, the word "kuleana" means rights and responsibilities. I have a right to the environment, but also a responsibility to it. Many traditional and Indigenous communities talk about having reciprocal obligations to a river, forest, animals, to whatever they're using and extracting. Indigenous communities apply cultural kinship and the psychology of reciprocity to the natural environment in addition to other people.

There's currently a "rights of nature" movement that's trying to put this idea into law. It's good to try, but laws are not as good at capturing informal rules and norms. I'm not counting on the rights of nature movement to solve all our problems, even if it is on average a good step forward.