BOOK REVIEW: DILEMMAS OF THE COLLECTIVE / institutions, poverty and cooperation in the local management of common-pool resources
Original name in Spanish: Dilemas de lo colectivo: Instituciones, pobreza y cooperación en el manejo local de los recursos de uso común. Juan Camilo Cardenas (2009).
"Collective or communitary spaces confront us to the dilemma of managing them in a collective manner, or abandoning them to rules of the game that are incomplete and considerable individual incentives that will take them to be territories of noone. [...] The central topic of this book is cooperation, and its principal postulate of collective action."
The author of this book is Juan Camilo Cárdenas, a very particular economist, currently a professor at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. He engages directly with rural communities around the country, conducting economic games and experiments to understand how do communities use and preserve natural resources, that in most cases have to be exploited, as they constitute the principal mean of their economic activities. This book includes theoretical foundations for experimental economics, as well as major learnings from the field work in Colombia. The text is particularly useful because of the simplicity of the language used, which makes it very accessible for non-economists.
The basic premise of new alternative studies in economics move from understanding humans as rationals beings, always making decisions that favor individual benefits, towards a more sensitive, creative conception of what it means to make economic decisions, that many times favor the collective wellbeing.
Above is the scan of a very informative chart at the beginning of the book (in Spanish), that includes short descriptions of contemporary tendencies in economics and how specifically they contribute to the analysis of environmental problems. This chart includes collective action theories, game theory, common-pool resource theory, agent-based models, experimental economics and others.
The charts are a crucial beginning of the book. They extensively document a bunch of theories that are mentioned later in the book and also give a conceptual framework to the actual experiments conducted in Colombia.
Throughout the following chapters, Juan Camilo positions the dilemma of the management of natural resources as a larger ecosystem of interactions that not only involves the communities but other actors apparently more distant from the natural resources - as urban settlements, government bodies, and institutions. After this map of stakeholders, he explores the constant trade-offs between individual vs. collective interests when facing indirect uses of natural resources.
Juan Camilo points out: "To study economic problems of common-pool resources implies the confrontation with several conceptual and methodological issues that are central to this analysis. The majority of the economic and social value components of the resources is not reflected in the prices of the market or by the products that derivate from this natural resources". This takes us back to the importance of focusing on people and their drivers to pursue an action.
In order to provide the basis for understanding social constructs around biodiversity, Juan Camilo refers to a bunch of economic texts like "The logic of collective action" by Mancur Olson (1965), "Game theory for applied economists" by Gibbons (1992) and "The social structure of cooperation and punishment" by Gintis (2000).
If this is the scenario, where do the solutions for conservation lie?
In the State, the markets or the communities?
To understand this deeply, Juan Camilo introduces the notion of games from experimental economics and how several experiments were conducted in different regions of Colombia. The experiments conducted spin around the notion of asymmetries of information as the key hindering factor for collective action. As long as individuals don´t know how other people will behave in relation to the same resource, then is difficult for them to make the decision of cooperating.
Other crucial notions include overexploitation, the rivalry of resources and individual property rights that on many cases depend on institutional arrangements, but also on sociocultural systems of appropriation. There is a section about the physical impossibility to give an actual limit to some natural resources as water bodies, humidity or migrant species, which has an influence when examining where the solutions lie.
Some thoughts on the book:
The efforts of Juan Camilo are commendable. He is one of the very few economists in Colombia who at his moment, was producing such a large body of work, specially with a fresh understanding of economics, directly challenging the mainstream conceptions in academic circles.
The games he has conducted in remote areas of the country demonstrate all the theories and "big words" that come with cooperation studies, and this is a great relief. It is a relief in the sense that cooperation as a mechanism has been proven to work for communities and that designing environments and incentives for people, has a lot of potential to actually move towards greater environmental sustainability. The weak side of this aspect is how Juan Camilo communicates the actual success of cooperation and altruism. On this matter, and after demonstrating his empathy for the people, again his language subscribes to the larger theoretical frameworks, and he does not share particular lived experiences on the field, that has led him to these conclusions.
Here are some conclusions by Cardenas on his book:
As a complement to this, it would be very interesting to read which are the self-organized initiatives or even random comments of participants that have led Juan Camilo to this conclusion. And this is the gap of economics, even when understanding humans from a micro perspective and theorising about their intentions and motivations (not only the economic efficiency of their decisions), there is a lack of sensitivity on the academic field to recognize the very triggers for cooperation, by being in the search for numbers that can shape their graphs or help them reach to statistical conclusions.
On the other hand, as pretty much all economics text, this book includes graphs to explain concepts and some results from the studies. This is another weak point, following the previous one. All the language used throughout the book is quite easy to understand, they are easily accessible to non-economists, but the graphs add a layer of complexity that economist find very hard to let go, evidencing the lack of interdisciplinary on this study.
The last two points mentioned can apply to many of the work produced on economics, that as a field, is still waking up from its very strict methodologies for studying social problems. As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, this work has no precedents in Colombia and is definitely a tool for creative practitioners to intervene in. In fact, for this purpose, Juan Camilo makes an attempt to transmit the pedagogies for experimental economics with a fascinating list of very practical recommendations to conduct economic games at the end of the book. The first 4 appendix list as follow: APENDIX A: Protocols of games (instructions) / APENDIX B: Other possible rules for the second stage of the game / APENDIX C: Formats to conduct the experiments / APENDIX D: Informed consent.