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Water management and equity-driven ostracism – maintenance of cooperation in a CPR subject to variable resource and social conditions

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Local and global commons are under growing pressure worldwide. Their sustainable management requires not only an understanding of the environmental factors that affect them, but also a knowledge of the interactions and feedback cycles that operate between the resource dynamics and the socio-economic dynamics attributable to human intervention. The conservation of local commons, such as scarce water resources, is dependent on the cooperation of users that restrain themselves from individual short-sighted resource overexploitation. Maintaining such cooperation against the myopic self interest of the individual users and despite growing environmental pressure is a challenging task that often depends on a multitude of factors, as both successful and unsuccessful management of the commons have shown. We investigate the role of fairness motives as a mechanism for the establishment and maintenance of cooperation in common pool resource (CPR) use under variable social and environmental conditions. The aim is to identify conditions under which a fairness norm can support sustainable resource exploitation and facilitate adaptation to changing resource conditions. Using evolutionary game theory, we investigate the stability of cooperation in a population of resource users that are concerned about their status with respect to other community members and may experience a refusal of help when they are better off than their peers as a result of an extraction level above the socially agreed upon as acceptable. The model is confronted with the results of an agent-based model aimed at studying the impact of shocks in resource dynamics on resource extraction behavior and, more generally, on the capacity of the users to adapt to uncertainty in resource availability. We model two types of agents: cooperators that restrain their extraction level to a socially accepted amount that is close to the efficient level for the community, and defectors who extract at a higher level which is more likely to lead to overexploitation. A defecting agent experiences a cost originating from the refusal of the community to provide assistance to him. In other words the defector’s payoff from resource extraction is decreased contingently upon both the payoff difference with respect to the cooperator’s (a larger one leads to greater social stigma) and the ostracism cost function, which is increasing in the frequency of cooperators. When reputational considerations play an important role and a sufficient level of social stigma affects the violators of the social norm, cooperation obtains, leading to a sustainable resource management. We analyze whether coexistence of both norm-observing and norm-violating types is possible in a CPR, and to what extent it depends on the environment. The combination of the two modeling approaches allows us to better explore the interactions between the environmental and the socio-economic dynamics, and their response to endogenous (i.e. behavioral) as well as exogenous (i.e. climatic) pressures exacerbating the resource scarcity or its unpredictability. The study is meant to contribute to the literature by providing a systematic exploration of the resilience of coupled social-ecological systems to local and global change.

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