Environment and Society in a Changing World

Collective Action Problems


Collective Action Problems

Two concepts from ethics that we did not touch on in Module 3 are altruism (selflessness) and selfishness. Perhaps we should be altruistic and make personal sacrifices to help others. But, for better or worse, people often are at least somewhat selfish. Collective action problems arise when people are selfish and thus fail to achieve successful collective actions.

A collective action problem is a scenario in which there is conflict between the individual interest and the group interest. In the scenario, each individual in the group faces a choice to either act selfishly or cooperate. In a collective action problem it is always in the individual’s best interest to act selfishly, regardless of what the other individuals do. However, if all individuals act selfishly, then they all get worse outcomes than if they all cooperate. In other words, it is in the individual’s interest to act selfishly, but it is in the group’s interest to have everyone cooperate. This is the conflict between the individual interest and the group interest.

Environmental Collective Action Problems

Collective action problems are widespread throughout environmental issues. Usually, they involve scenarios in which individuals want to act selfishly in a way that would harm the environment, but groups would benefit from environmental protection. Here are some examples:

  • Individuals often want to do things that emit a lot of greenhouse gases, but society overall may be better off with less climate change.
  • Individuals often want to drive cars so as to get around faster, but driving causes more air pollution that harms the whole group. Additionally, driving can cause traffic jams, whereas public transit avoids traffic jams. The car/transit decision is often a collective action problem for travel time: each individual travels faster by driving regardless of what other individuals do, but the group will overall travel faster if everyone takes transit than if everyone drives.
  • Individuals may want to harvest scarce natural resources that are up for grabs, but society overall may be better off if everyone avoids using too much of these resources.

This last example is closely related to the "tragedy of the commons". This concept has an important connection to sustainability and is worth considering in greater detail.