Top 10 checklist: How societies can avoid 'ecocide'

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    A 'moai' (ancestral spirit figure) protectively watches over Rapa Nuians at a fishing harbor on Easter Island, Chile. Easter Island tribes failed to live sustainably on the once heavily forested island, which led to ecological disaster.
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In his book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," Jared Diamond explores why some societies fall apart, and why others endure.

He uses the term "ecocide" to describe humanity's penchant for ignoring signs that current behavior is unsustainable, environmentally speaking, and effectively committing suicide.

Accepting that the human sphere exists within the larger biosphere, you might further generalize Diamond's idea to: "cultures that ignore the limits of the biosphere in which they exist tend to fall apart."

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But not every human society collapses. Some heed the warning signs, adjust their behavior, and keep on keeping on. Human cultures can evolve to fit within – rather than overstep – environmental limits. Mr. Diamond counts Java, Japan, and Tonga among his successful case studies; Easter Islanders, the Greenland Vikings, and the Anasazi of the Southwest failed, by his criteria.

So what made the difference? What do some cultures respond and change while others collapse? What are the attributes of long-term success?

That's the question that Elinor Ostrom, research director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, Bloomington, has been asking for years.

In an essay appearing in the current issue of the journal Science, she tries to parse how and why some cultures achieve sustainability.

In her own words:

"[A]ccepted theory has assumed that resource users will never self-organize to maintain their resources and that governments must impose solutions. Research in multiple disciplines, however, has found that some government policies accelerate resource destruction, whereas some resource users have invested their time and energy to achieve sustainability."

Then she poses the trillion-dollar question: "When will the users of a resource invest time and energy to avert 'a tragedy of the commons'?" That is, the exhaustion of a resource shared by different individuals or groups.

In the language of cost-benefit analysis, change comes when the benefits of sustainability seem to outweigh the costs of achieving it. Averting environmental collapse often means taking a loss now – no fishing for a few years, for example, so that stocks can recover – in the interest of long-term sustainability. That means sacrifice now. What makes people more willing to make such a sacrifice?

In her essay, Ostrom offers a list of 10 variables that, she says, greatly influence whether a group organizes to become sustainable or not.

1) Size of resource system
2) Productivity of system
3) Predictability of system dynamics
4) Resource unit mobility
5) Collective-choice rules
6) Number of users
7) Leadership/entrepreneurship
8) Norms/social capital
9) Knowledge of social-ecological systems/mental models
10) Importance of resource

"There are a number of questions you have to ask to diagnose illness," says Ostrom in a phone conversation. "What I'm trying to get people to recognize is that we need diagnostic theories that enable us to dig down and unpack the complexity."

Some of these seem obvious. No. 4, for example – resource mobility. It's easier to manage wood from a stationary forest than, say, bluefin tuna, which swim many thousands of miles in a lifetime. Here's what's at stake: According to the WWF, if fishing as usual continues, bluefin stocks in the Mediterranean will collapse by 2012.

Then there's No. 6: how many people use the resource. Again, (failed) fishery management illustrates how important this variable is. Open-access fisheries, where anyone can join the fishing fray, collapse time and time again. It's one reason that New England is so overfished. For decades, the fishery was essentially open to all.

The failure of open access partly explains the trend toward managing fish with so-called "hard TACs" – an absolute cap on the yearly Total Allowable Catch – and catch shares, in which people "own" a percentage of the year's scientifically determined TAC. Sustainable management means limiting and controlling access.

The importance of other variables is somewhat less apparent ... at first. No. 8: a shared set of norms, for example. People have to speak the same language – and that's meant in the broadest sense – before they can agree on anything.

But the real magic is in the synergy of these variables, how they work together. Ostrom uses Maine lobstermen as a case study in success.

Lobsters were overharvested in the 1920s; the stock was nearly destroyed. But today, Maine's waters teem with lobsters, and lobstermen can make a good living. How did that happen? Here's one secret, she says: harmony among local communities and state government. Top-down management didn't squelch bottom-up organizing. Lobstermen worked out lobstering rights themselves – plots of ocean along Maine's coast. "They were allowed to organize at a local level," she says.

But the state didn't butt out entirely. That was also key. Maine launched projects to grow lobsters in artificial ponds. And it introduced an innovation: notching lobster tails. Originally introduced as a way to track hatchery lobsters, tail-notching has become an important management tool in the greater scheme of things. Lobstermen notch the lobsters they release – if they're bearing eggs, say. Characteristics specific to the species in question – the fact that you can notch lobsters without killing them, not necessarily the case with fin fish — helped, in this case.

Also important: Maine lobstermen have a shared culture – shared social norms. That helped in hammering out the regulations at a local level. And finally, Maine has leaders (No. 7), professors like James Acheson and Jim Wilson as well as fishers like Ted Ames – all of them respected by the community and having an understanding of the larger problems and issues.

How might this apply to human-caused global warming, say, a potential tragedy of the global commons? Get global agreements in place, she says, but make sure to allow for innovations at the local level, and make sure to learn from them.

"We need both good science and very careful research designs," says Ostrom. "We need to treat citizens and resource users with respect and get them involved with problem-solving, and [we need] various ways of learning from more successful cases."

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