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Governance at the Community Level

For most of our existence, humans have lived in small groups within the confines of local ecosystems. Cooperation evolved because those groups that worked together survived, while those that did not perished. Institutional rules for cooperation and living within biophysical limits emerged early in pre-agricultural human societies and ensured the viability of these small groups. The rules of the game changed with the widespread adoption of

Members of several families of San people (Bushmen) at their settlement in Namibia.

agriculture some 10,000 years ago as we broke out of the confines of small communities and local ecosystems, but our evolutionary history still leads us to cooperative behavior.

The obsessive focus of economic theory on “self-regarding behavior” led economists to deny the possibility of cooperation except in cases where it was directly and immediately beneficial to both parties. Because of the freerider problem (when someone receives a benefit without paying his or her share of its cost), economists assumed that the only options for successfully managing commonproperty resources were rigid, top-down control or the complete assignment of private property rights to individuals. But recent work has shown that cooperation is widespread in the natural world, including among humans, and all successful human groups have a variety of rules to punish free riders and encourage altruism. This is part of community governance, and it is accomplished by social pressure as well as formal sanctions.

Elinor Ostrom, co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, drew on her experience in small-scale societies around the world to identify eight principles for the successful management of common-property resources:

(1) a strong group identity, (2) fairness in distributing costs and benefits, (3) consensus decision making, (4) effective monitoring of effort and rewards,

(5) graduated sanctions, (6) rapid and fair conflict resolution, (7) sufficient autonomy when the group is part of a larger system, and (8) appropriate coordination between groups. Ostrom and her colleagues identified these principles from meticulous studies of the effectiveness of different systems of common-property management. When the principles are in place, local communities do a remarkable job of protecting their resource bases even under intense outside pressure.

Sustainable human communities existed for some 2 million years (counting Homo erectus as human), so it is not as if we cannot do it. Sustainable indigenous human cultures still exist, although they are being eliminated at an alarming rate. Sustainable communities are also appearing within the world capitalist system, as subcultures are being “re-engineered” as ecocommunities built around the needs of humans and ecosystems, not markets. The success of movements for sustainable local agriculture and local currencies, and the continuing resistance of native peoples to assimilation into the market economy, attest to our ability to confront the global system. Can the human propensity for cooperation and community building be harnessed sufficiently to scale up and challenge a global system built on competition and accumulation? Perhaps, but we need to be realistic about what we are up against. (See Box 3–1.) In small communities, the “good of the group” corresponds to the “good of individuals within the group.” This is not necessarily true for very large groups. The positive benefits of cooperation are undeniable, and numerous recent books have touted our cooperative nature. But the optimism of those on the cooperation bandwagon is often pushed too far. For example, evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel writes:

Modern societies differ vastly from the small tribes that once competed to occupy Earth. But the old psychology plays out well in our globalized, multicultural world. Our species' history is the progressive triumph of cooperation over conflict as people recognized that cooperation could return greater rewards than endless cycles of betrayal and revenge.

There are reasons to temper this optimism. First, hunter-gatherer societies did not practice the kind of intergroup warfare that characterizes agricultural and industrial societies: within-group conflicts were significant, but warfare with other groups was largely absent. Human history is not a simple story of progress from savagery to civilization. Secondly, Pagel and others equate the impersonal interconnections involved in producing and consuming world economic output with cooperation. But coordination in producing economic surplus is not the same as cooperating for the common good. Stressing the virtues of cooperation can be a more nuanced approach to human nature than the “selfish gene”/“economic man” worldview, but the dark side to human cooperation must be understood if we are to realistically assess our present circumstances. The leap to agriculture and state societies some 8,000 years ago represented a rare but highly successful evolutionary transition to “ultrasociality,” a type of social organization seen in only a handful of species, including ants and termites. Ultrasociality is characterized by a full-time division of labor, specialists who do not aid in food production, sharing of information, collective defense, and complex city-states. The profound social and environmental consequences of such complexity have resulted in what biologist E. O. Wilson calls “the social conquest of Earth.” The ultrasocial human economy is the uppermost level in the governance hierarchy, and it is the most problematic.

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