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Researchers find individuals with common goals use resources sustainably

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JANUARY 31, 2023

In a sustainable future, a new UC Berkeley study reveals that it may not actually be every person for themself.

Combining an online platform with a theoretical model, research from the UC Berkeley department of environment science, policy and management, or ESPM, shows that cooperation toward a shared goal among individuals in a community can lead to the sustainable use of a “common-pool resource,” a resource that is available to all despite its inherent scarcity.

The study was written by campus ESPM professor Paolo D’Odorico, campus postdoctoral researcher Chengyi Tu, Zhe Li of the University of South China and Yunnan University and University of Padova associate professor Samir Suweis in the department of physics and astronomy.

“When I visited Berkeley just before COVID with Paolo, and we really looked at the literature, we realized that there were many things about sustainability and human resources but very few that take into account the feedback of choices,” Suweis said. “We started to really have the feeling that this was an important piece about how to really study sustainability.”

Working with the campus Experimental Social Science Laboratory, the researchers developed an online platform called the Systemic Sustainability Game. Players could choose between individual versus collective payoff and short-term versus long-term awards, according to the study.

Choosing between “cooperation” or “defection,” participants could either take their fair share in order to benefit the community or exceed their allocation. When participants had a shared goal in mind, researchers found that they were more likely to cooperate with one another, according to D’Odorico.

“What we have in mind is like a kind of rather local scale,” Suweis said. “For example, you can think about a village, the fisher and the fishermen in his village … (Fishermen) make a kind of organization and really try to share the goal of having long-term sustainable fisheries.”

Suweis noted that cooperation among individuals in a community regarding a common-pool resource can be applied to forests and other seafood industries such as lobster fishing.

During their research, the authors of the study were inspired by the works of Elinor Ostrom, according to Suweis. Ostrom was an economist who won a Nobel prize for her research demonstrating that individuals can create rules that allow for the sustainable management of shared resources.

D’Odorico noted that the participants were university students from China and the United States. He added that it would be “interesting” to allow people to play the game worldwide in order to find differences based on background and whether they are farmers, ranchers or people otherwise living on communal lands.

“Our work is theoretical, so we don’t have a direct application,” Suweis said. “It’s more proof that if you have shared goals, you may actually have a sustainable common-pool.”

Contact Chrissa Olson at 


JANUARY 31, 2023