Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Localization: Research projects (updated June 2018)

Since 2007, when the Localization Seminar was first taught at the University of Michigan, a number of graduate student research projects have been completed on related topics such as local food systems, voluntary simplicity, energy descent, and environmental psychology. A selected collection are listed below.
Although the University of Michigan (UM) is not the state's land grant school it nonetheless has a vibrant sustainable food program and maintains numerous instructional gardens, a food forest and a campus farm.
Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Role of Psychology in Preparing for Lean Times: The Behavioral Context of Energy Descent

Summary - A one-time era of vast energy and natural resources allowed modern civilization to emerge and flourish. This gift of abundant resources supported the building of industrial society’s urban settlements and physical infrastructure. The material richness also supported the creation of a consumerist society now characterized by a massive global flow of goods and services. None of this can be sustained indefinitely since, despite how vast those resources were, they were never limitless. Thus, an energy and resource descent is anticipated and likely inevitable. This situation demands a pragmatic response. Psychology can help to frame that response but the effort must start soon.
A New Biophysical Context

Society is approaching biophysical limits-to-growth (Meadows, Meadows, Randers & Behrens, 1972; Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004). Under this scenario, resource supplies first tighten and then begin a long, drawn-out but deep descent. Simultaneously, defensive expenditures rise to address the ecological damage caused by past resource consumption and mismanagement of waste. The notion that there are limits to material growth has been controversial – an astonishing fact given that humans exist on a finite planet. In fact, the very idea of resource limits has been, for decades, much maligned when it was not being ignored. But the expectation of an impending end to modern society’s material growth has recently received renewed attention from both ecologists and economists (Bardi, 2014, 2011; Daly & Farley, 2010; Gordon, 2016; Hall & Day, 2009).

Voracious over-consumption of finite resources, coupled with biophysical constraints, is bringing ever closer the day when the resources at our disposal will be insufficient to maintain growth in, and perhaps the full maintenance of, the personal, social and urban systems to which we have become accustomed. Undeniably, a deep decline in resource availability will significantly alter daily life patterns throughout industrial society. The scope of the challenges being faced has increased tremendously over just the last few decades (McKibben, 2010). Consider that, near the end of this century, the day-to-day challenges of addressing climate disruption will involve producing only about a tenth of current greenhouse gas emissions, and likely requiring a reduction in the consumption of energy and materials by a similar magnitude. The environmental movement has previously argued for major reductions in resource consumption, but rarely have changes of an order of magnitude been envisioned. It may be time for the psychological and behavioral sciences to take seriously the possibility of an unprecedented change in day-to-day living patterns brought on by the end of material growth.  

A New Behavioral Context 

It is difficult to know when this scenario might begin to unfold – and distractions like cheap gasoline can make one doubt that it ever will – but it clearly constitutes a new behavioral context, one that the psychological and behavioral sciences least attends to. There are many features of the coming transition that are unfamiliar to a society enmeshed in a fast-paced, even frenetic, era of over-consumption. Fortunately, although dramatic and deep, the needed changes in behavior would be drawn-out. This is not at all what the popular folk mythology of resource apocalypse predicts. The reality of what is being faced lacks Hollywood’s sudden and catastrophic collapse motif. The change is more likely to occur over many decades – a persistent, although punctuated, downshift to a new normal.

Despite the slow nature of the transition, the anticipated changes in the biophysical basis of life will come to seriously tax our social, emotional and attentional capacities. Individuals and groups will be challenged to remain mentally and behaviorally effective while coping with ever-present biophysical limits. The degree to which a given society thrives will depend in part on how well individuals cope with the everyday challenges of energy and resource descent (De Young, 2010). There likely will be a priority placed on such psychological concepts as emotional stability and clear-headedness, the ability to maintain pro-social inclinations, the capacity to plan and restrain behavior, and a willingness to continue building competencies. As disparate as these aspects of coping seem, they share a common foundation: the ability to keep our wits about us in the face of potential chaos. It is here that the behavioral sciences will play a major role in supporting the coming transition, since what is being faced is not a technological or political challenge, but a psychological one.

Research has begun to explore the effects of energy descent on public health (Frumkin, Hess & Vindigni, 2009; Neff, Parker, Kirschenmann, Tinch & Lawrence, 2011; Poland, Dooris & Haluza-Delay, 2011). Likewise, the possible mental, physical and community health impacts of climate disruption are being mapped out; particularly useful are the guidelines on how communities can cope with the psychological impacts of climate disruption (Clayton, Manning & Hodge, 2014; Doherty & Clayton, 2011). A similar effort is needed to help individuals and communities cope with the equally dramatic social and psychological impacts of energy and natural resource descent (De Young, 2014; De Young & Princen, 2012).

A Role for Psychology

There are a great many ways in which psychological research and practice can assist people as they first envision and then navigate new life patterns over a long-drawn-out transition. A few are introduced here, meant only to suggest how central psychological insights will be in our successfully coping with limits-to-growth. Very early in the process, people may need assistance in exploring alternatives to the current societal relationship with resources. Fortunately, the human mind evolved for just such exploring (Kaplan & Basu, 2015), with fascinating work emerging on the psychology of prospection (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister & Sripada, 2013).

Behavioral scientists and community practitioners must pre-familiarize people with the coming transition in ways that are neither frightening nor overwhelming. It may prove useful to encourage many small, social experiments in simple living – what might be called behavioral entrepreneurship – as exemplified by the growing transition town and ecovillage movements (Litfin, 2013a, 2013b, 2011). The goal of this pre- familiarization would be to craft and share stories that not only honestly portray life under a prolonged and involuntary energy descent, but do so in a way that people crave the experience enough to seek it now.

Another body of psychological research that may be helpful is that focused on the role of nature in restoring mental effectiveness, emotional stability and subjective well-being (Berman, Jonides & Kaplan, 2008; Kaplan & Basu, 2015; Kaplan, 2001, 1995). One of the more useful findings emerging from this research is that the psychological benefits derived from time spent in nature do not require outstanding natural environments. Nearby nature, even the small scale and ordinary, will suffice for the restoration of mental effectiveness, emotional stability and well-being. This is a hopeful finding since under a resource-constrained scenario it will be necessary to get by with the nearby nature already present in our settlements; there may not be the resources, time or political support to secure and maintain new urban and suburban parks, public gardens or open spaces. Time spent in nearby nature is proving to be as effective as dwelling within the beauty of extraordinary natural settings.

There is, of course, a great deal more existing and emerging psychological knowledge relevant to the issue here being discussed than is mentioned above. But it will be important to be future oriented throughout the coming transition – in particular, field-based applications of existing and emerging findings must be a priority. Since it is likely that no single response will fix things everywhere, for all people or for all time, it will be useful to conduct a great many social experiments. Indeed, a culture of small experiments should be fostered. In so doing, and although a resource-limited future will be austere, it may be possible for people to live well while they live within ecological limits. In fact, the coming downshift may provide an opportunity for people to re- connect with nature and other people in ways that provide deep and durable well-being.


Bardi, U. (2011). The Limits to Growth Revisited. London, UK: Springer.

Bardi, U. (2014). Extracted: How the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet. White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., and Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.

Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., and Hodge, C. (2014). Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica.

Daly, H. E., and Farley, J. (2010). Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

De Young, R. (2014). Some behavioral aspects of energy descent: How a biophysical psychology might help people transition through the lean times ahead. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1255.

De Young, R. (2010). Restoring mental vitality in an endangered world. EcoPsychology, 2, 13-22.

De Young, R., and Princen, T. (2012). The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Doherty, T. J., and Clayton, S. (2011). The psychological impacts of global climate change. American Psychologist, 66, 265-276.

Frumkin H., Hess, J., and Vindigni, S. (2009). Energy and public health: The challenge of peak petroleum. Public Health Rep, 124, 5-19.

Gordon, R. J. (2016). The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living since the Civil War. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Hall, C. A. S., and Day, J. W. (2009). Revisiting the limits to growth after peak oil. Am Sci, 97, 230-237.

Kaplan, R. and Basu, A. (Eds.) (2015). Fostering Reasonableness: Supportive Environments for Bringing Out Our Best. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.

Kaplan, S. (2001). Meditation, restoration, and the management of mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33, 480-506.

Litfin, K. T. (2013a). Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK.

Litfin, K. T. (2013b). Localism. In: C. Death [Ed.] Critical Environmental Politics (pp. 154-164) Routledge: London, UK.

Litfin, K. T. (2011). Seed Communities: Ecovillage Experiments around the World. Retrieved from page&v=MtNjZaXDGqM on March 31, 2016.

McKibben, B. (2010). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. NY: Times Books.

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., and Behrens, W. W. (1972). Limits to Growth. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Associates.

Meadows, D. H., Randers, J., and Meadows, D. L. (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Neff, R. A., Parker, C. L., Kirschenmann, F. L., Tinch, J., and Lawrence, R. S. (2011). Peak oil, food systems, and public health. Am J Public Health, 101, 1587-1597.

Poland, B., Dooris, M., and Haluza-Delay, R. (2011). Securing ‘supportive environments’ for health in the face of ecosystem collapse: Meeting the triple threat with a sociology of creative transformations. Health Promotion International, 26, 202-215.

Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., and Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 119-141.

A related paper on this topic is at: De Young, R. (2014) Some behavioral aspects of energy descent, Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1255.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Earlier version archived: February, 13, 2017 at:

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Lean times ahead: Preparing for a resource-constrained future

Summary - Society soon will face significant biophysical limits to growth. Natural resource availability will slowly tighten and then begin a long drawn-out descent while expenditures rise to address the damage caused by past resource consumption. It is difficult to know when this scenario will begin to unfold but it clearly constitutes an entirely new behavioral context, one that the behavioral and social sciences least attend to. Since it is likely that no single response will fix things everywhere, for all people or for all time, it will be vital to conduct many social experiments. Indeed, a culture of small experiments should be fostered which, at the individual and small group level, can be described as behavioral entrepreneurship. It will be useful to both package behavioral insights in a way that is both practitioner-friendly and grounded in biophysical trends and to propose a few key questions that need empirical attention.
Sometime this century, the era of cheap, abundant and ever increasing energy will end, and Western industrial civilization will begin a long, slow descent toward a resource-limited future characterized by simplicity and frugality. Behavioral scientists should begin now to prepare the public for this resource descent, which is defined as a tightening of the availability of energy and natural resources accompanied by a persistent step-wise downshift to a new, reduced-consumption normal.

By the end of the century, day-to-day activities will need to consume nearly an order of magnitude less energy and materials than currently used. Frankly, it may not be possible for members of industrial societies to maintain anything close to a contemporary life pattern while also living within this new biophysical context. However, although the resource-limited future will be more austere, it may be possible, if preparations are made early enough, for people to live well while they live within ecological limits. In fact, the coming downshift may provide an opportunity for people to re-connect with nature and other people in ways that provide deep and durable well-being.

Although recently (at the time of this posting in late 2017) prices at the gasoline pump have dropped significantly in many parts of the developed countries and the production of oil and natural gas has remained on an undulating plateau, these are short-term trends when viewed from the perspective of a many-decades-long descent in net resource availability. The planet’s carbon stores have always been finite and continuous growth in the use of these resources is unsustainable. And though fossil fuels will likely be extracted from the Earth’s crust for centuries to come, the amount available to run modern techno-industrial society over any given time period will slowly decline.

The global production rate of liquid fossil fuels soon may begin -- or is already beginning -- a drawn-out leveling and then a slow descent, with other fuels and materials soon to follow the same pattern. Then industrial civilization, having already scoured the planet of new sources, will experience biophysical limits as a steady headwind against which it must labor. Biophysical limits involve the ability of nature – including the Earth’s ecosystems and its geological formations -- to provide resources and services to humanity. As less energy is available for all kinds of uses, including technological innovation, the opportunity to develop alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels may slip away. As that window closes, technology will undoubtedly help ease a societal transition but will not eliminate the need for one. Daily life in industrial nations will repeatedly downshift into more austere forms as people are forced to consume less of just about everything. Climate disruption and geopolitical instability will likely complicate the situation. A reduced-consumption existence may become commonplace not because conservation behavior will have been voluntarily chosen by the public or cleverly initiated by behavioral scientists but because there simply will be no other choice. Having ignored many opportunities for voluntary simplicity, industrial society may now face involuntary simplicity.

This is not at all what the popular folk mythology of resource apocalypse predicts. It lacks Hollywood’s sudden and catastrophic collapse motif and its hero/anti-hero story line. The change will likely emerge very slowly, over many decades and throughout all of our individual lives – a personal, persistent, sometimes punctuated, step-wise downshift to a new normal.

The slowness of the transition is what makes this scenario psychologically difficult to accept. It will be perceived as much easier to simply hope that things will eventually return to normal. Thus, the first challenge is one of motivating people to act in advance of circumstance that force behavior change.

The job for behavioral scientists will be to help people cope with the realization that everyday life may soon differ substantially from conventional expectations and to help them envision an alternative to their current relationship with resources. Behavioral scientists and community practitioners can help by pre-familiarizing people with the coming transition in ways that are not frightening or overwhelming. They should also encourage many small, social experiments in simple living, -- what might be called behavioral entrepreneurship, exemplified by the growing ecovillage and transition town movements -- which will serve as models for those who initially resist the coming changes.

The goal would be to share stories that not only honestly portray life under a prolonged resource descent, but to do so in ways that cause people to crave the experience enough to seek it now.

Read an earlier full paper on this topic at: De Young, R. (2014) Some behavioral aspects of energy descent, Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1255.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Earlier version archived: June 13, 2016 at:

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Environmental Psychology

The study of human nature, reasonable behavior and durable living

Download article: De Young, R. (2013). Environmental psychology overview. In S. R. Klein and A. H. Huffman (Eds.) Green Organizations: Driving Change with IO Psychology. (Pp. 17-33) New York: Routledge.

Summary - Environmental psychology is a field of study that examines the interrelationship between environments and human affect, cognition and behavior (Bechtel & Churchman 2002; Gifford 2007; Stokols & Altman 1987). The field has always been concerned with both built and natural environments with early research emphasizing the former (Stokols 1995; Sundstrom, Bell, Busby, & Aasmus 1996). However, as environmental sustainability issues became of greater concern to society in general, and the social sciences in particular, the field increased its focus on how humans affect, and are affected by, natural environments. The goals of this paper are to introduce environmental psychology, explain how it emerged from the study of human-environment interactions and note how it has redefined what we mean by the terms nature and environment. Special note is made of humans as information-processing creatures and the implications this has for encouraging reasonable behavior under trying environmental circumstances. Finally, pragmatic approaches to bringing out the best in people are presented.
In an effort to promote durable living on a finite planet, environmental psychology develops, and empirically validates, practical intervention strategies regardless of where the foundational science resides. Thus, the field considers as not useful the sometimes artificial distinction among the fields of cognitive, evolutionary and social psychology. In so doing, environmental psychology incorporates the work of individuals and research traditions that might not otherwise initially be identified with the field (consider, for instance, Cone & Hayes 1980; Geller, Winett & Everett 1982; Katzev & Johnson 1987).

The same integrative approach applies to the level of analysis and scale of intervention. The field explores individual and collective level behavior and seeks interventions that work at all of these scales. In fact, this is one of the strengths of the field. It has always been problem-oriented, using, as needed, the theories, methods, findings and contexts of related disciplines (e.g., anthropology, biology, ecology, psychology, sociology) and the professional schools (e.g., education, public health, social work, urban planning). In this pragmatism, environmental psychology well symbolizes one of Kurt Lewin’s better known quotes, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” (1951: 169).

More recently the applied fields of conservation psychology (Clayton & Myers 2009; Saunders & Myers 2003) and ecopsychology (Doherty 2011) have emerged to understand and resolve issues related to human aspects of conservation of the natural world. The former initiative merges the insights, principles, theories and methods used by conservation biology and a wide range of psychology subfields. The latter initiative is also broad-based and includes a therapeutic approach to enhancing people-environment interactions and personal wellbeing. Both maintain a rich network of researchers and practitioners who share the goals of creating durable behavior change at multiple levels, promoting an environmental ethic and maintaining harmonious human-nature relationships.

Today the fields of environmental psychology, conservation psychology and ecopsychology are helping society to form an affirmative response to emerging environmental and natural resource constraints. This is a grand challenge since the response must plan for, motivate and maintain environmental stewardship behavior through a period of significant energy and resource descent. The initial focus is to pre-familiarize ourselves with living well within the limits of natural ecosystems (De Young & Princen 2012).

What is Meant by Environment

Over its nearly half-century of research and practice, the field of environmental psychology has expanded both the definition of what is nature and what is environment. The field still studies to good effect built settings (e.g., wayfinding in subways systems, navigating in distracting environments). But as its research interests and methods matured, the field found the distinction between built and natural settings often unhelpful and unnecessarily limiting.

Clearly, urban settlements devoid of all forms of nature, if they even could exist, would be infrequent to the point of being irrelevant. Likewise, pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands, is now exceedingly rare. Environmental psychology understands that humans know nature, in its many forms, as intermixed with built elements. This melding can be seen in urban parks and waterfronts, zoos and aquaria, backyard and meditation gardens, the many elements of the local food movement, exurban bikeways and wetland boardwalks, fence-lined country lanes and blazed mountain trails. Furthermore, nature is usually nearby and viewable from almost any window. Even when not nearby, nature usually contains signs that others have been there before.

Here too is another discovery of environmental psychology. Something counts as nature even if it does not contain DNA. The wind through the leaves, the flow of water, the colors of a farmer's market, the smell of a spring rainstorm, moonrises and ocean waves are all experienced as part of nature and have potential psychological effect.

But a perhaps more fundamental insight of environmental psychology comes from its broad conceptualization of what constitutes an environment. It borrows from cognitive psychology the notion that all environments are patterns of information and that people are fundamentally information-processing organisms, deeply motivated to remain informationally, and thus environmentally, competent. In their pursuit of both immediate and long-term goals, humans need both to understand current environmental patterns and to continuously expand their proficiency by exploring and learning from new patterns. This striving for ever-growing competence is fundamental to human survival and thus intrinsically motivated.

There is a shift here that  is subtle. The psychological focus is not on understanding specific groups, single personality traits or particular psychological mechanisms. Rather, environmental psychology explores the environmental context of human behavior and wellbeing. This context might be physical (e.g., home, office, park), social, conceptual (e.g., design, narrative), vast or small. It might be known from direct experience or from becoming pre-familiarized with something not yet present, something that might be experienced only indirectly though stories or simulations. The latter is possible because one of the astonishing effects of our information-processing capability is our being able to feel at home in a place we do not yet inhabit.

One additional aspect of the subtle shift in perspective reveals a key premise of environmental psychology. To understand behavior we need to study more than just the context of that behavior (i.e., the environment) and more than just the traits and goals of the individual or group whose behavior is of interest. We can understand, and perhaps influence, behavior more effectively by studying the interaction of context and traits, environmental affordances and cognitive inclinations, settings and goals. It is in the interactions that we can understand the origins of reasonable (and unreasonable) human behavior.

Encouraging and Supporting Reasonable People

Unreasonable behavior (e.g., being irresponsible, uncooperative, intolerant, unpleasant) seems to be proliferating in fast-paced, high-consuming industrialized societies. One might conclude that such behavior is humans’ standard operating condition. Fortunately, many years of psychological research shows this conclusion to be wrong. Environmental psychologists Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan suggest that the difference between reasonable and infuriatingly unreasonable behavior may be partly explained by the environments in which people find themselves. To this observation that the context of behavior makes a difference they note two other key facts: that humans have a remarkable facility to process information, and that information and affect are in a close adaptive relationship with each other. Taken together these provide the basic premise of the reasonable person model. Namely that people are more likely to be reasonable and cooperative in environments that support their informational needs (Kaplan and Kaplan 2005).

Before outlining these informational needs, it is useful to make clear what is meant by information. Information, much more than money or social interaction, is the foundation of our lives. As Kaplan (1995) points out, humans are information-based organisms, “[w]e yearn for it, we hoard it, we are overwhelmed by it, we trade it, we hide it. We ask questions such as ‘How do I get there?’ ‘How does that thing work?’ and ‘What happened?’” Information surrounds us. While much information comes from spoken and written material, the environment in all its many forms conveys vast amounts of information (e.g., the behavior of others, the array of objects we encounter, the events that unfold).

The reasonable person model focuses on the interrelationships among three major domains of human informational needs. First is the need for building mental models. These models address the simultaneous human needs for understanding and exploration. The way in which the environment supports or hinders this need affects everything from behavioral competence to psychological wellbeing. The second domain is about becoming effective and also includes two elements: being clear-headed enough to be capable of responding appropriately to the profusion of information around us, and the sense of competence that comes from knowing what may be possible and how to act. Being confused or incompetent does not bring out the best in people thus restoring and maintaining mental vitality and proficiency is essential to supporting reasonable behavior. Finally, there is the need for meaningful action, a need to be an active part of the world around us, to be respected for our role and to do things that matter in the long run. While closely aligned with our inclinations to be helpful, this need can also be fulfilled by the many behaviors where the social relevance may not be obvious or immediate. Each domain can be explored independently. However, as a practical matter they are highly interrelated. Consider how hard it is to take meaningful action without first understanding the situation, how being clear-headed can make our behaviors much more effective, and how exploring natural settings can restore our mental vitality.
Model Building. A mental model is a highly simplified version of reality that humans store in their head and use to make sense of things, to plan, to evaluate possibilities, in short to manage all everyday functioning. These portable models store the knowledge gained from the many experiences people have and are the basis for making decisions. They are foundational to all knowing and acting and people find it useful to be constantly building and testing them against reality. One element of model building, understanding, can be achieved through formal learning. More commonly, however, understanding is gained through direct and indirect experience. The other element of model building, exploration, is about moving about in a space or a concept to learn more about it. Such exploration can take place in the physical world, or virtually, or entirely in one’s mind. It can be about the present or about a future time and place. Team-based problem-solving and brainstorming are group-based exploration although the models built are contained in the heads of the individual team members; this seems like an obvious observation until we realize that the stored models may not be identical thus affecting group behavior. Satisfying the need for exploration allows humans to expand their mental models, increasing their understanding.

Being an information-based animal, our survival requires the mental capability to recognize what is happening and to predict what might happen next while there is still time to take suitable action. This need places a high priority on exploration. Yet, while we are motivated to learn more about the environment, we must never go so far that our mental models no longer sufficiently understand the situation. While we are eager to explore so too are we quick to return to what is familiar. Simultaneously, we need to make sense of our present situation while also acquiring, at our own pace, information that is relevant to our current and future concerns. Thus exploration, if pursued close to the familiar, becomes a powerful means of expanding our understanding.

One of the fascinating aspects of human nature builds upon the role familiarity plays in our cognition. In conversations about behavior change, it is often claimed that people anchor to the status quo and are immune to scientific arguments. One might infer that, if true, this would pose a serious problem for behavior change efforts. After all, to deal with the urgent environmental problems being faced, people may be called upon to make far-reaching changes away from the status quo, toward an unfamiliar life pattern, some promoted by abstract scientific arguments alone. Fortunately, however, the issue here is not a status quo bias but a familiarity bias. A familiarity bias is based on our mental model of a situation and thus mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of our current understanding. This provides great hope since mental models can be formed and altered in a large variety of ways.

Becoming Effective.This domain is about the need to be clear-headed and competent so as to be able to achieve our goals. It is here that we can clearly see the constraints on and limits of human information processing.

First and foremost becoming effective is about achieving clarity in our thinking by maintaining our mentally vitality. This is a formidable challenge since handling all the information we crave, as well as dealing with the onslaught of unbidden information, easily leads to being overwhelmed and mentally exhausted. Yet, while some environments can cause a loss of mental vitality, others can provide for its restoration.

Attention restoration theory (Kaplan 1995, 2001) explains this apparent contradiction. This theory builds on the distinction between two forms of attention called fascination and directed attention. The former, fascination, is involuntary attention; it requires no significant effort and is not under volitional control. Fascination is experienced when, out of innate interest or curiosity, certain objects or processes effortlessly engage our thoughts. William James provided a list of such innately fascinating stimuli: "strange things, moving things, wild animals, bright things, pretty things, blows, blood, etc. etc. etc." (1892/1985). The potential significance of such objects argues for why this form of attention does not fatigue; it is adaptive that such things continue to rivet our attention even if encountered repeatedly.

In contrast to fascination, the capacity to direct attention requires major effort. This directed mental effort is essential for remaining effective in the many situations that lack fascination. In order to contemplate important yet uninspiring objects and processes we must inhibit competing or peripheral yet perhaps more interesting thoughts and stimuli. Such inhibition allows us to carry out an important plan despite the presence of diversions, listen closely while beset by noise, and feel compassion for and help others despite our own unmet needs. The adaptive significance of directed attention is enormous. Behaviorally, the ability to hold the immediate environment at bay permits humans to insert their own intentions between stimulus and response. Cognitively, this ability allows us to concurrently run multiple models in our head without undue confusion, contemplate alternate explanations for an observation and consider multiple responses.

Unfortunately the capacity to voluntarily direct our attention is finite. When under constant demand our ability to control the inhibitory process tires resulting in a condition called directed attention fatigue. This mental state greatly reduces our effectiveness. The signs of this mental fog are many: irritability and impulsivity that results in regrettable utterances, impatience that has us quickly jumping to ill-formed conclusions, and distractibility that results in tasks being left unknowingly unfinished (De Young 2010).

In order to restore the capacity to direct attention it is necessary to seek out environments that require little of this finite resource or that use other means of maintaining mental focus. Thus recovery can be achieved by pursuing activities that rely heavily on involuntary fascination. As fascination is engaged, the need for directed attention is greatly reduced which thereby allows for its recovery. Thus an essential feature of restorative environments is their ability to elicit fascination. In principle there are many types of restorative environments. However, research has repeatedly highlighted the role of time spent in natural settings in the effort to remain mentally effective (Berman et al. 2008, Frumkin 2001, Herzog et al. 1997, Kaplan &Kaplan 1989).

Tending to our mental vitality is essential for achieving clear-headedness. Becoming fully effective, however, requires a second element which involves achieving and maintaining a sense of competence. Feeling competent depends on knowing how things work in the world, knowing what is possible and appropriate, and having the skills that match the challenges we face. While there is a contentment from being competent, we are also intrinsically motivated by the process of improving and extending the competence we already have.

Meaningful Action. Information can be a source of insight, comfort and motivation. It also can be fascinating. All too often, however, the information we receive leaves us feeling overwhelmed or feeling that there is nothing we can do to put things right. Such feelings of helplessness, not surprisingly, are demoralizing (Seligman 1975), hardly a state that leads to reasonable behavior.

Meaningful action, in contrast, is the opportunity to make a useful contribution to a genuine problem. It may involve being effective at a large scale (e.g., the choice of livelihood, a life-long struggle for environmental justice or food security) but perhaps more often it involves actions at a more modest level (e.g., participating in a stewardship activity, community involvement, voting). The meaningfulness experienced is less about the scale of the effort and more about deriving a sense of making a difference, being listened to and respected, and feeling that we have a secure place within our social group. Reasonable behavior is more likely when people feel that they are needed and that their participation matters. A number of studies indicate that doing something judged worthwhile or making a difference in the long run are primary motives underlying voluntary environmental stewardship behavior (Grese et al. 2000, Miles et al. 2000). In these studies the notion of meaningful action emerged as one of the most significant sources of satisfaction.
As mentioned earlier, the elements of the reasonable person model are highly interrelated. Perceiving a sense of competence and achieving respect are deep founts of meaningful action. Just as people who feel confused, mentally exhausted or helpless are rarely at their best, when these concerns are addressed people are much more likely to be reasonable and cooperative. In short, bringing out the best in people is more likely when the environment supports understanding and exploration, develops competence, promotes a clear head and enables meaningful action.

Transitioning to Sustainable Living

As we contemplate the changes that will be needed to address the many environmental issues being faced (e.g., climate disruption, energy descent, environmental injustice, soil depletion), it is heartening that the reasonable person model supports the notions that humans seek meaningfulness more than novelty, that they benefit more from developing a sense of competence, clarity and mental vitality than from pursuing convenience or hedonic pleasure, and that the mind is better adapted to exploring, problem solving and sense making than it is to affluence.

The transitions needed to live sustainably within biophysical limits will dramatically alter the context and content of everyday behavior. Surprising to some, the coming downshift may actually stimulate people’s natural inclinations to explore and understand, and to pursue acts of meaning. Thus, the transition we will need to make will create many of the very conditions that, environmental psychology research shows, support reasonable behavior.

However, to increase the probability of success, we must encourage experiments on a multitude of options. Citizen and environmental experts alike should constantly tinker with new institutional forms, metaphors, norms and principles. Perhaps most importantly, we must each become behavioral entrepreneurs, exploring new behaviors and new ways to combine old behaviors. Perhaps a behavioral aesthetics is possible, a way to live our daily lives as a work of art as we adapt-in-place. We may be facing a materially simpler life but it may be possible to live with beauty.

Although our current analytical tools can help make sense of the past (e.g., how did we get to this state of climate disruption and energy descent) and the present (e.g., what is the nature of our environmental predicament) and can extrapolate recent trends into the future, they cannot determine which paths into the future will prove more useful. For this we must adopt an adaptive, experimental approach. Our problem solving must seek a plurality of solutions, not the one right solution or the magic elixir. Emerging plans, policies and procedures should be viewed as hypotheses in constant need of reality testing. Or, as author and community organizer Pat Murphy puts it, we need to “make a lot of mistakes quickly”(quoted in Cobb 2009). The quickly part of this suggestion comes from the concern that climate disruption and energy constraints are happening at a frequency and intensity thought to be, until recently, many decades away. The anticipation of mistakes comes from a humility that echoes the insights of Meadows, Randers & Meadows (2004) who argue that in our current state of biophysical overshoot we need to find the right balance between environmental urgency and patience. Achieving this balance will require humility, honesty and clear-headedness.

The Power of Small Experiments

To the extent that the response to an environmental dilemma must be place-based, it becomes inappropriate to rely solely upon universal interventions. In fact, the need for a localized response diminishes the effectiveness of outside solutions altogether. Participants struggling to form a localized response will benefit only slightly from generic instructions. And they certainly will not take kindly to being informed by outside practitioners about how they must behave.

In such situations a competent and situation-aware practitioner will see that his or her role has changed. This role becomes suggesting guidelines for how participants might craft their own response and then being prepared to answer the questions that naturally arise from the resulting effort. The urgency and dramatic consequences remain, but the process of responding has changed.

An approach to behavior change under conditions of urgency, great environmental uncertainty and grave stakes, yet with a need for place-based sensitivity, might start with small steps. As anthropologist and political scientist James Scott advises with respect to interventions for economic development, “Prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move.” (Scott 1998: 345). Scott’s suggestion follows, in part, the small-experiment approach to environmental problem-solving outlined by Irvine and Kaplan (2001; see also Kaplan, Kaplan & Ryan 1998). Small experiments is a framework for supporting problem-solving that is based on the innate inclinations that are at the core of the reasonable person model, particularly the building and sharing of mental models. It supports innovation, maintains local relevance and experimental validity all while promoting rapid dissemination of findings. It is also in contrast to the large-scale, bigger-is-better approach that dominates so much of research these days; an experiment need not be intimidating to be useful.

The small experiment framework can help people who are not trained scientists to validate what works in their locality. But while the involvement of the non-expert is possible, is it more likely under this approach? To be effective, the small-experiment framework would need to create greater individual and group engagement.

To enhance engagement, the small experiment framework carefully manages the scale of the activity. Picking the appropriate scale is a crucial step. It was Weick’s (1984) insight that people anchor around the scale and structure of the initial problem definition and start to work on solutions that are only at that same scale or structure. If we cast the problems faced as being at a large scale, as is often the case with environmental issues, then it is hard to imagine anything but a large scale solution sufficing. Furthermore, imagining that solutions as being of only one fundamental type (e.g., political, economic) unnecessarily limits what people can offer. Large scale problems may seem to demand large scale solutions, yet the scale of the problem need not dictate the scale of the solution. And not all environmental problems work out to be problems of policy or economics and thus not all solutions need be political or economic in nature.

There are both ethical and motivational issues at work in the small experiment framework. The careful attention to the scale of problems and solutions is well-matched to the ancient ethical teaching that while, “it is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], you are not free to desist from it either.” A key element of small experiments is that people need only focus on what they are better prepared to handle. Others will handle that which they are positioned to solve.

The motivational effect likely comes from the intrinsic satisfaction derived from developing, displaying and maintaining competence (De Young 1996). Since success at a smaller scale can result in an empowering sense of competence, this may result in people being more willing to continue or re-start their problem-solving efforts at a later date or in a different setting (Monroe 2003). Social benefits also may emerge from keeping the scale small; trust is easier to build and may prove useful when efforts must be repeated.

Small experiments are going on all the time. They are often the basis of stories told by at-home tinkerers, dedicated gardeners, office problem-solvers and innovative teachers. They are part of team efforts where experts and citizens combine and apply their talents and knowledge to a problem of mutual concern. Consider also the many pilot programs, field tests, demonstration sites and trial runs regularly reported in both popular and scientific publications.

Small experiments are so common that they may seem inconsequential to the casual observer yet they can be a powerful means of behavioral entrepreneurship. Their effectiveness can be enhanced by following a few simple guidelines.
Scale and expectation. While already an integral aspect of small experiments, smallness can be understood in a variety of ways. Keeping the physical scope small is obvious. Others include keeping the breadth of exploring small and the time-span short as well as involving only a small number of people as participants or respondents. The experiment can also be tentative, tried out for a limited time or on a limited basis. These guidelines help keep the costs of project initiation and management low. So too should expectations be kept in check. The findings of small experiments are unavoidably imperfect and incomplete. Yet small too are the consequences of failure; failure is always a possibility if an experiment is genuine. Nonetheless, as Irvine and Kaplan document (2001), findings from a modest enterprise may prove extraordinarily useful and have broad effects.

Goal and focus. Keep the focus on only one specific and well-defined problem. While it may be okay to start exploring before having absolutely everything in place, it is essential to first have a clear and concise question. Such a question motivates the effort and makes it easier to avoid distractions no matter how fascinating they may be. Spending too little time on figuring out what you hope to learn is the surest way to fail. Anticipating what you would like to be able to say at the end is an excellent way of formulating your initial question. Here too, modest expectations may be a helpful guide; the aim of the small experiment is to identify reasonable solutions, preferably a multitude of them. The goal is not a search for the ideal answer.

Tracking and record keeping. Empirical research, at its core, involved being attentive to what is going on. Whether formal or informal information gathering is used, the objective is to systematically learn what worked and what did not. At the immediate timeframe and at the local level, the tracking allows for feedback to the participants. In situations involving behavior change, rapid feedback allows for self-correction; people can learn how the specific choices they made affected the outcome. Without such feedback behavior cannot be changed is a pragmatic and productive way. Over the longer timeframe, the information recorded informs next steps and may provide the basis for developing generalizations that might be useful to share with others. Once again, modest expectations can play a role in deciding the amount and form of information to be tracked. The intent is to collect only enough information to allow for feedback and inference; too little information precludes useful learning, but too much information can paralyze the analysis process. Easy to gain information is always preferred in modestly-funded small experiments.

Dissemination and communication. Sharing the successes of a small experiment is an excellent way to let participants know that their efforts mattered. It is also an opportunity to validate the correctness of the proposed changes for the local people who were not directly involved in the small experiment. Finally, communicating with people at a distance may inform and motivate other small experiments; successes in one locality become plausible options to explore elsewhere, while communicating about failures instills caution. The form of communication used can vary with the circumstances. Newsletters, newspaper articles and presentations at an open-house can work well locally while professional presentations, blogs, journals and magazines can help with wider dissemination. But regardless of the outlet used, clear, concrete, vivid and engaging language will help to familiarize others with the findings.
It is noteworthy that nothing in these guidelines restricts small experiments to taking only small steps or to a slow discovery process. A behavior change process called adaptive muddling, stresses this subtle but important issue (De Young & Kaplan 1988). Adaptive muddling adds one important aspect to the small experiment framework. A stability component is used to reduce the costs of failure for the individuals involved. It also makes highly improbable unchecked and disorienting change. With a safety net in place people need not privilege the status quo by investigating only marginal behavior change. Far reaching change can be both contemplated and explored. The scale of the experiment may be small but adaptive muddling supports people exploring, and thus prefamiliarizing themselves with, life-changing adaptations. Since this modification to the small experiment framework makes the exploration process less intimidating, discovery can occur more quickly as more people become engaged. Furthermore, while the impact from any one group's change may be modest, this process supports simultaneously exploring, and sharing the results of, many changes at once each drawing on the knowledge and experience people already possess.

Some people may argue that the small experiment framework is a renamed version of the experimenting society proposed by Campbell (1981). The experimenting society suggests that social programs should be designed and implemented as experiments with a built-in evaluation process. However, in Campbell’s version the evaluation is a formal process, one conducted by social scientists using meticulous, expertly designed trials followed by rigorous statistical analyses. Furthermore, the results are intended for use by governmental policy makers and, perhaps, for later publication.

The small experiments approach uses the concept of an experiment in a much less restricted sense. The analysis involved in such experiments is less formal and more compatible with immediate needs and local capabilities. Online accounts, reports by participants or visits by interested individuals would be appropriate additions to whatever formal record keeping is employed. The more expert-based framing of an experiment used by Campbell make his approach less likely to be tried by, and the results less accessible to, non-experts.

The small experiment framework is a quick and simple way to promote behavior change that is compatible with what environmental psychology has learned about human nature. Such an approach can enable people to build mental models that allow them to view the urgent and serious environmental issues they face in terms of challenge and possibility rather than inevitability and despair.

Humans as Engaged and Purposeful

There is still much to be learned about human-environment interaction. Nonetheless, the reasonable person model, and the related tools of small experiments and adaptive muddling, provides a context for creating interventions that bring out the best in people. Together they provide a framework for working with people in ways that fulfill a variety of innate inclinations: to explore, to understand, to enhance competence, to be part of a solution and to pursue meaningful goals.

This framing recognizes humans as active, purposive beings, not as mere recipients of the information patterns generated by environments or experts. But of all these innate inclinations, none is more central than model building. In an effort to explore and understand, people are constantly either building models of their experiences and the environment, or using their existing mental models to effectively function in an environment. There is an affective and motivational aspect here as well but it does not involve putting people into a positive affective state beforehand. People deeply care about the model building process. They gain intrinsic satisfaction from exploring, building and sharing mental models. They are pained by a process that results in confusion or boredom. Thus affect is fundamental to, but derived from, the process of learning and knowledge transfer.

In short, environmental psychology has discovered that by being attentive to the innate need and capability of people to build new mental models and test old ones, we can enhance their knowledge acquisition and wellbeing. We can also better manage and leverage behavior change and thus, quite possibly, repair the world.


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Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Archived version: December 13, 2013 at:

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Averting the Tragedy of the Commons

Adaptive muddling: Bringing out the best in people despite their facing difficult environmental and social circumstances

Summary - Ecologist Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" (Hardin, 1968) has proven a useful concept for understanding how we have come to be at the brink of numerous environmental catastrophes, some short-term or place-based environmental crises, others global ecological dilemmas or long-term energy and resource descents. In short, people's collective behavior does sometimes cause civilization-threatening situations.

Such maladaptive behavior is not initiated by malicious outside forces or individual misunderstandings, but rather results from the apparently appropriate and innocent decisions of individuals and small groups, acting intentionally and often alone. If we were to take only Hardin's perspective, it would be easy to despair of the destructiveness and unsustainability of human behavior. For his perspective suggests that frustratingly unreasonable behavior is the standard operating procedure for our species. However, such despair comes from having far too narrow a view of human nature. Thus, it benefits our understanding of these issues to take a broader perspective on human nature, one that draws from the full range of social science discoveries and insights.

We can start by correctly defining the problem being faced: a central issue here is whether human nature leads inexorably to unsustainable outcomes. The answer is a straightforward no. Although we are certainly capable of and do have a history filled with maladaptive behavior (e.g., tragedy of the commons, resource over-consumption, ecological overshoot), such behavior is not our default operating condition and it is not inevitable.

The challenge then is to specify the conditions under which humans behave reasonably. This is a centuries-old psychological quest. Social science research continues to address this challenge and a great many new findings from a wide variety of academic disciplines supports our taking a decidedly optimistic view of human nature (Clayton and Myers, 2009; De Young, 2011; Kaplan and Kaplan, 2009). While this empirical research is ongoing, there are nonetheless numerous valid and useful findings to report.
A Simple Context

Hardin’s parable involves a pasture "open to all." He asks us to imagine the grazing of animals on a common ground. Individuals are motivated to add to their flocks to increase personal wealth. Yet, every animal added to the total degrades the commons a small amount. Although the degradation for each additional animal is small relative to the gain in wealth for the owner, if all owners follow this pattern the commons will ultimately be destroyed. And, assuming rational actors, each owner ads to their flock:
Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. (Hardin, 1968)
Despite its initial reception as revolutionary, Hardin’s tragedy was not, in fact, a new discovery: its intellectual roots trace back to Aristotle who noted that "what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it" (see Ostrom 1990) as well as to Hobbes and his leviathan (see Feeny et al., 1990). More recently William Forster Lloyd identified in 1833 the problems resulting from property owned in common (1977).

Yet if all that was at stake here was grazing land in the 1800's this would be an issue for historians alone. Hardin's useful insight was to recognize that this concept applies in its broader sense to a great many modern environmental problems (e.g., overgrazing on federal lands, acid precipitation, ocean dumping, atmospheric carbon dioxide discharges, draw down of fossil aquifers, firewood crises in less developed countries, over-fishing, over-population). Simply stated, this is a serious social dilemma - an instance where individual rational behavior (i.e., acting to maximize personal short-term gain) can cause long-range harm to the environment, others and ultimately oneself.

Is the Tragedy Inevitable?

With a clear definition of a CPR tragedy, early researchers focused on explaining the conditions under which it was most likely to arise. It is noteworthy that not all resource management situations lead to a tragedy. Certain fundamental conditions must exist before a tragedy can emerge. The first condition involves the nature of the resource itself. One must distinguish between a public good and a commons, or what has come to be called a common-pool resource (CPR). Public goods have the attribute of being nonconsumptive. One's use of a public crop forecast does not reduce the availability of that forecast to others. In fact, users of a public good care little about who else uses it. Likewise all users benefit from the maintenance of a public resource (e.g., weather forecasting computer, bridge) whether or not they help pay for the maintenance. Ostrom (1990) has contrasted these attributes of public goods to those of a CPR where the resource is subtractable (one's consumption deprives others of use) and able to be overused. Furthermore, the individuals who contribute to the maintenance of a CPR care enormously about who else is using it and how much they are consuming even if these others help maintain the resource.

Yet, not all use of subtractable resources will inevitably lead to catastrophe. The second fundamental condition focuses on access to the resource. A tragedy is more likely to emerge in a situation where restraining access to the resource is costly, impractical or impossible (Feeny et al., 1990). Hardin’s predictions for the inevitable over-exploitation of a commons were based solely on consideration of open access situations. And, in fact, case studies document that tragedies do occur when an open-access system supplants a pre-existing successful CPR management system.

Thus a tragedy is not inevitable. However, it is more likely to occur if one is dealing with a CPR that is subtractable, able to be overused and, most importantly, experiencing unrestrained, open access.

Averting the Tragedy

Unfortunately, knowing the conditions that lead to a tragedy does not insure that one can easily avoid it. Clearly, the nature of a resource is fixed. While one can limit withdrawal of resource units to a sustainable rate for renewables and a repairable rate for those that physically deteriorate, a subtractable resource cannot be made nonsubtractable. Furthermore, managing access involves the complex task of excluding others from using the resource. Thus averting a tragedy involves restraining both consumption and access. Such restraint poses a significant, but not intractable, behavioral challenge.

Slowly, the focus of social science research shifted from exploring the conditions under which a tragedy is more likely to occur, to understanding the conditions under which durable and resilient resource management emerges.

Restraint by coercion through outside agents

It was argued by Hardin and others that the most straightforward way to achieve restraint is through coercion, generally administered by outside agents. In its most extreme formulation this prescription involves the centralized authoritarian control of a resource (e.g., direct top-down management by a government agency). Another approach involves privatization of the commons which, while less severe, also involves external actors and the force of law to defend the rights of the private enterprise to manage the commons as it sees fit.

Following this prescription, governments have intervened to impose centralization or privatization on specific CPRs. Unfortunately, neither of these approaches is certain to prevent a tragedy. Privatization does not insure sustainability. There will always remains the temptation to exhaustively harvest a resource and bank the money obtained, particularly if the money grows faster than the resource. Furthermore, it is argued that centralized solutions that employ powerful coercion fail to reckon with the innate human phenomenon of reactance against compulsion (De Young and Kaplan, 2012 , 1988). Forced involvement in compulsory systems without consent motivates people to want the forbidden and creatively resist the demanded. Another concern is the ability of centralized, authoritarian approaches to commit a large percentage of available resources to what is judged to be a vital project. While the urgency of certain CPR crises would seem to demand such a response, it entails considerable risk. There is the danger of making large scale resource allocation errors. In fact, the potential for grave errors may be a major risk of the authoritarian approach.

Self-organized management of CPRs

A considerable amount of interdisciplinary work has been produced examining CPR institutions (see Martin, 1992). The most exciting finding to arise is the capacity of the individuals involved in situations ripe for tragedy to have enough insight to coordinate their efforts and successfully manage a CPR without external intervention or support. Ostrom (1990) documents examples of self-organizing and self-governing commons systems that have worked well and endured for centuries, some under extreme environmental and social circumstances. These include grazing and forest institutions in Switzerland and Japan, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines.

The conditions necessary for the development of durable, self-initiated and self-managed CPR institutions are being extracted from the analysis of CPR case studies. No single set of conditions seems essential. Instead, the mix of necessary conditions varies within limits according to the specific attributes of the biological, physical, psychological, political and economic contexts. Ostrom (1990, 1992) has brought clarity to the these findings by organizing the conditions conducive to the long-term survival of a CPR institution into eight themes (see Table 1).

Table 1. Conditions Exhibited by Durable CPR Institutions
  1. Clearly defined boundaries: Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.
  2. Congruence between rules and local condition: Rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions. There should be a small set of simple rules related to the access and resource use patterns agreed upon by the appropriators, rules easy to learn, remember, use and transmit.*
  3. Collective-choice arrangements: Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying these operational rules. There is a need to remain adaptable, to be able to modify the rules with regard to membership, access to and use of the CPR and to remain responsive to rapid exogenous changes. *
  4. Monitoring: Monitors, who actively audit CPR conditions and appropriator behaviors, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators. The enforcement of the rules is shared by all appropriators sometimes assisted by "official" observers and enforcers. *
  5. Graduated sanctions: Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to these appropriators, or by both.
  6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms: Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low-cost local arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials. There is also the need to adapt the rules to changing conditions and apply different rules to different problems and scales of problems. *
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize: The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities. Appropriators must be able to legally sustain their ownership of the CPR.*  Furthermore, their organization must be perceived as legitimate by the larger set of organizations in which it is nested. *
  8. Nested enterprises: For CPRs that are part of a larger system, the appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

    Source: After Ostrom, 1990; * See Ostrom, 1992   
One final issue involves finding ways to encourage the formation of self-organized CPR institutions. The costs of exploring and initializing CPR management options are high. Without a supportive procedure, the crafting and exploring of alternatives will prove too risky for small groups of individuals. One solution to this porblem is called "adaptive muddling" (De Young and Kaplan, 2012, 1988). This is a form of muddling through that emphasizes not small steps but small experiments. It offers a way of simultaneously exploring several possible solutions thus avoiding the sluggishness that plagues one-solution-at-a-time approaches. People are empowered to apply local or personal knowledge to a situation. Different people applying different knowledge to the same situation creates a variety of potential solutions. It is just such enhanced and diverse creativity that is needed. Furthermore, as conceived, adaptive muddling contains a stability component that not only reduces the costs of failure for individuals but also makes highly improbable any unchecked and disorienting change and the widespread implementation of untested solutions.

How ever one crafts workable CPR institutions, the urgency of the task is clear. For while the tragedy of the commons is not an inevitable outcome, it is a conceivable risk whenever resources are being consumed.


Clayton, S. and O. E. Myers, Jr. (2009). Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature. NY: Wiley/Blackwell Publishers.

Feeny, D. et al. (1990). The tragedy of the commons - 22 years later, Human Ecology. 18, 1-19.

Lloyd, W. F. (1977). On the checks to population, In G. Hardin and J. Baden [Eds.] Managing the Commons. San Francisco: Freeman.

Martin, F. (1992). Common Pool Resources and Collective Action: A Bibliography. Volume 2., Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Ostrom, E. (1992). The rudiments of a theory of the origins, survival, and performance of common-property institutions, In D. W. Bromley [Ed.] Making the Commons Work: Theory, Practice and Policy. San Francisco: ICS Press.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Text is updated from that in the original citation.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Localization: Premise

Summary - To survive on this planet, we each must prepare for a persistent descent in overall resource availability. This emerging biophysical reality is inevitable. It is not altered by political debate or market forces, nor will denial or inattention make it disappear. What is not inevitable, however, is the nature of our individual and collective response. One plausible response, called localization, has unexpected and positive aspects that emerge from the efforts of behavioral entrepreneurs.

In popular discussion, a set of terms is emerging: locavore, adapting-in-place, slow foods, voluntary simplicity, BALLE (business alliance for local living economies), economic gardening, local currency, LOIS (local ownership and import substitution), ecovillages, transition towns and localism. At the same time, some things are reappearing: farmers markets, granges, community energy systems, backyard gardens and old skills taught to a new generation. Localization is a concept that gives these phenomena a context; it shows where they are coming from and why, as natural resource supplies tighten in the coming decades, they are important. Each notion below will be expanded upon in later papers.


How ever vast were the resources used to construct modern industrial society, they were never limitless. Climate disruption, an unanticipated consequence of their use, is intensifying; abundant and cheap energy is a gift soon gone, crude oil production will peak and then slowly decline; other resources will follow in descent later this century; and technological innovation, while easing our transition to a new normal, will not fundamentally change the outcome.

Only with difficulty are we coming to recognize and slowly accept the simple truth that we are extracting finite resources for which there are no adequate substitutions. Finite still bears the same definition it always has: it does not replenish itself. Society must turn from seeking new resources to crafting new patterns of living within the limits of renewable, and primarily local, ecosystem. Such a situation is not a collapse yet incorrectly naming it so seems commonplace.

We can accept that this transition is inevitable, but the form of our response is not preordained. Localization, with its focus on place-based living within the limits of nearby natural systems, is a plausible response with several unexpected aspects to recommend it.

Certainly, our clever avoidance of significant and long-lasting behavior change will end. We may struggle to radically simplify our lives but biophysical reality will allow no other choice. Dismal as this sounds, it makes many aspects of transition easier by unburdening practitioners. The details here are fascinating with reality and enlightened self-interest creating a self-motivating process. Nonetheless, there are ways to intervene that can hasten the goal of positive localization.

It is straightforward to understand that the good times we have enjoyed for over a century were based, in large part, on ever-increasing amounts of high-quality resources. If a significant percentage of those material and energy resources is removed from our complex industrial society then the future may not be prosperous in conventional terms. Localization frames this as a frank premise, although one not widely accepted:
  1.  Industrial society faces re-emerging biophysical limits, involving an inevitable decrease and, eventually, leveling of high-quality resource availability at the same time that the negative consequences of past consumption must be addressed. This reality will negatively affect essential services and institutions (e.g., food systems, water systems, health provision, education, mobility, banking) and will negatively impact those forms of psychological well-being based on economic growth and the consumption of material goods and energy. 
  2. These circumstances and ensuing effects are, like gravity, not negotiable. They are not altered by political debate or market forces, nor will denial or inattention make them disappear.
  3. Conventional tools (e.g., policy-change, pricing, markets, technological innovation) will be useful but likely not fully up to the task.
 These, then, are the key parts of the premise. But they can also be framed as a prospect:
  1. Without a plan or a process, society risks a rapid, chaotic descent into a hyper-local existence, what can be characterized as negative localization.
  2. Positive localization, in contrast, is a process for creating and implementing a response, a means of adapting institutions and behaviors to living within the limits of natural systems. Place-based localization includes institutions at the regional, national and international levels, and individual and group behaviors and expectations that are compatible with biophysical reality. 
  3. Localization is not a specific outcome or end state to pursue. Rather it is a way of organizing and focusing a process of transition. It is, arguably, a process already underway, but one that should be accelerated while options still exist.
Indeed, we face not a problem with the possibility of a complete solution but a circumstance demanding an ongoing, and growing, response. An honest appraisal of the consequences of past disruption to climate, soil, oceans and watersheds produces a similar conclusion; we must adapt to a reality that we cannot change.
Need for a Coherent Response

Society will experience a transition from the centrifugal forces of globalization (e.g., concentrated economic and political power, cheap and abundant raw materials and energy, intensive commercialization) toward the centripetal forces of localization: distributed authority and leadership, more sustainable use of natural resources, self-sufficiency, community cohesiveness, an emphasis on the local while retaining regional, national and international dimensions.

The premise is that the coming transition is inevitable. What is not inevitable, however, is the nature of our response. Localization is one plausible response, a process of social change pointing toward localities. Its primary concern is adaptations for living within the limits of nearby natural systems. It focuses on everyday behavior within place-based communities. Simultaneously, because localities are interdependent across scales, localization has regional, national and international dimensions.

Localization is not strictly about the local nor a narrowly-focused localism. Localization is not globalization in reverse. Rather, as overextended economies and resource extraction efforts spend themselves, modern societies will experience a shift from the centrifugal forces of globalization—cheap and abundant natural resources, intensive commercialization, displaced wastes and concentrated political power—to the centripetal forces of localization—limited ecological sources of energy and materials, an inability to displace true costs in time or space, personal proficiency, community self-reliance, and distributed leadership.

Overall, localization builds on a notion by Antonio Gramsci, a “pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.” While the energy and material descent is unalterable, localization is an affirmative response. There are fascinating, and sometimes unexpected, aspects to localization.

Behavioral Simplification

Unexpectedly, the premise of localization may unburden us from one difficult problem. To understand this outcome consider this recent claim that people will not simplify their lives.
We can’t get out of the box just by cutting back on our energy use. Yes, conservation is essential. But modern human societies are buzzing hives of technological and social complexity, and only huge inputs of high-quality energy can create and sustain this complexity. Most of us don’t want radically simpler lives, because they’d be poorer lives in countless ways. So we need energy, lots of it – and we need new carbon-free sources. (Homer-Dixon, The Globe and Mail, 18 March 2011)
In a previous business-as-usual period, people’s unwillingness to change would have presented a significant barrier. It would have forced us to either pursue Homer-Dixon’s task of finding new carbon-free energy sources and/or continue, with increased vigor our decades-long effort to get people to dramatically reduce their overall natural resource consumption. Unfortunately, neither approach has had much success.

However, while people may not choose to simplify their lives (although even this is highly debatable), the premise of localization is that soon there will be no other choice. They will consume less because there will be less to consume. Dismal though this might sound, it may make the transition easier. Educators, activists and researchers no longer will need to persuade people to change behavior. People no longer will have to judge what arguments are more convincing. Instead, the biophysical reality and required responses will be directly perceivable, palpable and tangible. The reasons for downshifting behavior will be blatantly obvious, with the motivation for such change provided, not by others or institutions, but by interaction of the new reality with human self-interest.

If events unfold as the premise suggests, particularly if the natural resource descent is somewhat rapid, then we will no longer need to struggle to get our fellow citizen’s attention. Indeed, the situation may be reversed with the public calling upon experts of all types to help them formulate a respond. And the local expertise that is present in all citizens will need to be leveraged creatively, and quickly. We may wish we had more time to prepare. Fortunately, we can pre-figure a response.


When discussing behavior change it is often claimed that people anchor to the status quo, seem immune to scientific evidence and allow emotion to have too powerful an effect on future choices. Conceivably these tendencies pose a dilemma for localization. After all, we will need to make far-reaching changes, away from the status quo, toward an unfamiliar life pattern and all in quick fashion. However, the issue here is not a status quo bias but a familiarity bias, an issue linked to our mental model of a situation. This provides hope since mental models can be altered.

A strategy to use here is pre-familiarization. Since people are conceptual animals, what they can become familiar with is, fortunately, not limited to what they have experienced in a direct and literal sense. We can incubate pre-familiarization through indirect experiences. Consider the powerful effect of stories, artistic creations, simulations and practice of various kinds (e.g., plays, games, apprenticeships) and observation of alternative living patterns (e.g., living museums, ecovillages). These all help people to build mental models of the not yet present. Direct experience is also effective with transition town workshops, farmers markets and CSAs providing exposure to elements of a localized community. Pre-familiarization can help people to feel at home in a place they have not yet inhabited.

Motivation from Embedded Benefits

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is well known. But he also suggested the less appreciated conservation aesthetic. This aesthetic involves satisfaction derived from the hidden riches of responding to, and living within, biophysical limits. This form of motivation easily goes unnoticed, yet examples of innately fulfilling efforts at sustainable living, shared transportation, local food provisioning and cooperative housing are springing up all over.

To localize well demands that we change everyday behaviors. Many of us will need to develop new competencies, creatively solve natural resource problems and develop new ways of interacting. Fortunately, humans find the related pursuit of competence, frugality and participation to be intrinsically satisfying. This may be particularly true when we are tackling problems that are genuine and meaningful. Simply put, the creative efforts necessary for effective response to the emerging biophysical reality contain their own rewards.

But localization may offer an even deeper version of this motivation. One form of human greatness is living life-as-a-work-of-art. Transitioning to a less resource-intensive existence will require that we weave together new and old skills, behaviors, values and goals. As we do so, there will be opportunities for us to reflect at the end of day, or week, or month, on the beauty of our accomplishments. Localization may entail more ordinary days but extraordinary outcomes and reflections.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Archived version: April 5, 2011 at: