(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘cooperation

“What is missing from the policy analyst’s tool kit – and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization – is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts”*…

Locals at the Marienfluss Conservancy in Namibia meet to discuss conservation

Further to yesterday’s post on privacy as a public good, a revisit of an apposite topic, the destructively-problematic concept of “The Tragedy of the Commons“…

In December 1968, the ecologist and biologist Garrett Hardin had an essay published in the journal Science called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. His proposition was simple and unsparing: humans, when left to their own devices, compete with one another for resources until the resources run out. ‘Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest,’ he wrote. ‘Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.’ Hardin’s argument made intuitive sense, and provided a temptingly simple explanation for catastrophes of all kinds – traffic jams, dirty public toilets, species extinction. His essay, widely read and accepted, would become one of the most-cited scientific papers of all time.

Even before Hardin’s ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ was published, however, the young political scientist Elinor Ostrom had proven him wrong. While Hardin speculated that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided only through total privatisation or total government control, Ostrom had witnessed groundwater users near her native Los Angeles hammer out a system for sharing their coveted resource. Over the next several decades, as a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, she studied collaborative management systems developed by cattle herders in Switzerland, forest dwellers in Japan, and irrigators in the Philippines. These communities had found ways of both preserving a shared resource – pasture, trees, water – and providing their members with a living. Some had been deftly avoiding the tragedy of the commons for centuries; Ostrom was simply one of the first scientists to pay close attention to their traditions, and analyse how and why they worked.

The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions.

When it came to humans and their appetites, Hardin assumed that all was predestined. Ostrom showed that all was possible, but nothing was guaranteed. ‘We are neither trapped in inexorable tragedies nor free of moral responsibility,’ she told an audience of fellow political scientists in 1997…

Far from being profoundly destructive, we humans have deep capacities for sharing resources with generosity and foresight. Michelle Nijhuis (@nijhuism) explains: “The miracle of the commons.”

Elinor Ostrom (who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her work)


As we come together, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 that a Conference of Governors, convened by President Theodore Roosevelt and focused on the issue of conservation, opened in Washington. The brainchild of Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester of the U.S., it was attended by the governors of the states and territories, the members of the Supreme Court and the Cabinet, scientists, and other national leaders. Seven days later, the governors adopted a declaration supporting conservation. One result was The National Conservation Commission, appointed by Roosevelt later that year, which prepared the first inventory of the natural resources of the United States with chairmen for water, forests, lands, and minerals. The conference also led to annual governors’ conferences, and the appointment of 38 state conservation commissions.

Roosevelt and Pinchot


“We have always known that heedless self interest was bad morals, we now know that it is bad economics.”*…



The World Clock in Alexanderplatz, Berlin


The set of ideas now called ‘Ergodicity Economics’ is overturning a fundamental concept at the heart of economics, with radical implications for the way we approach uncertainty and cooperation…. starting with the axiom that individuals optimise what happens to them over time, not what happens to them on average in a collection of parallel worlds.

Much of this view rests on a careful critique of a model of human decisionmaking known as expected utility theory. Everyone faces uncertainties all the time, in choosing to take one job rather than another, or deciding how to invest money – in education, travel or a house. The view of expected utility theory is that people should handle it by calculating the expected benefit to come from any possible choice, and choosing the largest. Mathematically, the expected ‘return’ from some choices can be calculated by summing up the possible outcomes, and weighting the benefits they give by the probability of their occurrence.

But there is one odd feature in this framework of expectations – it essentially eliminates time. Yet anyone who faces risky situations over time needs to handle those risks well, on average, over time, with one thing happening after the next. The seductive genius of the concept of probability is that it removes this historical aspect by imagining the world splitting with specific probabilities into parallel universes, one thing happening in each. The expected value doesn’t come from an average calculated over time, but from one calculated over the different possible outcomes considered outside of time. In doing so, it simplifies the problem – but actually solves a problem that is fundamentally different from the real problem of acting wisely through time in an uncertain world.

Expected utility theory has become so familiar to experts in economics, finance and risk-management in general that most see it as the obvious method of reasoning. Many see no alternatives. But that’s a mistake. This inspired [the Ergodicity Theory creators’] efforts to rewrite the foundations of economic theory, avoiding the lure of averaging over possible outcomes, and instead averaging over outcomes in time, with one thing happening after another, as in the real world. Many people – including most economists – naively believe that these two ways of thinking should give identical results, but they don’t. And the differences have big consequences, not only for people trying to do their best when facing uncertainty, but for the basic orientation of all of economic theory, and its prescriptions for how economic life might best be organised.

Of particular importance, the approach brings a new perspective to our understanding of cooperation and competition, and the conditions under which beneficial cooperative activity is possible…

Economists and mathematicians at the London Mathematical Laboratory, together with collaborators including two Nobel laureates from the Santa Fe Institute, propose something altogether different: “How ergodicity re-imagines economics for the benefit of us all.”

* Franklin Delano Roosevelt


As we consider alternative accounts, we might recall that it was on this date in 2007 that Dodger infielder Chin-Lung Hu, recently acquired by the team, singled in a home game… allowing legendary Dodger announcer Vin Scully remark on-air, “shades of Abbott and Costello, I can finally say, ‘Hu is on first base.'”


Hu, on first



Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 23, 2019 at 1:01 am

“O teach me how I should forget to think”*…


Alt Right, Neo Nazis hold torch rally at UVA


When members of the Unite the Right rally marched through Charlottesville on August 11, 2017 in polo shirts and carrying tiki torches, Twitter went wild with jokes. “When you have to use a Polynesian cultural product (tiki torches) to defend and assert white supremacy,” wrote one Twitter pundit. Another captioned a photo of the marchers: “Y’all, we can’t get dates on Friday night (again) so we’re fixin’ to pick up some tiki torches at Walmart & have a klan rally. Who’s in?”

But Sarah Bond, an associate professor of classics at the University of Iowa, didn’t find the jokes funny. “Something horrible is going to happen,” she remembered thinking.

For the past several years, Bond has written about “classical reception” — or how Greco-Roman culture is received and interpreted — for Forbes online, the art and culture website Hyperallergic, and Eidolon, an informal online journal devoted to the classics. Because classical thinkers, institutions, writings, and art have been portrayed as the epitome of “civilization” since the Renaissance, she’s also documented how hate groups have latched onto the perceived legitimacy of antiquity to make themselves seem more legitimate.

“Torches are very much tied to violence in antiquity,” she says. “They are meant to intimidate people. There are a number of examples from antiquity of the use of mob violence where fire and torches are specifically used prior to an assassination.” The Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, and the Golden Dawn all marched with flames.

The day after the August rally and the Twitter jokes, violence erupted between the marchers and counter-protestors, and alt-right supporter Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Bond, a Virginia native who’d attended undergrad at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, was upset but not surprised. “That was the tipping point where I was like, you know what? Fuck their use of antiquity.”

White supremacists, misogynists, and anti-Semites see the ancient Mediterranean as a touchstone. Would a better sense of history change their minds? “Hate Groups Love Ancient Greece and Rome. Scholars Are Pushing Back.”

* Shakespeare, Romeo and Julliet


As we correct our corollaries, we might send cooperative birthday greetings to zoologist Warder Clyde Allee; he was born on this date in 1885.  One of the great pioneers of American ecology, Allee is best remembered for his research on animal behavior, protocooperation— for which he’s considered by many to be the “Father of Animal Ecology”– and for identifying what is now known as “the Allee effect“: a positive correlation between population density and the per capita population growth rate in very small populations, the product of cooperation– of the organisms acting as a group as opposed to individually.

Warder_Clyde_Allee source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation”*…



You take a flight from New York to London. Thousands and perhaps millions of people — including ticket agents, baggage handlers, security personnel, air traffic controllers, pilots, and flight attendants, but behind the scenes also airline administrators, meteorologists, engineers, aircraft designers, and many others — cooperated to get you there safely. No one stole your luggage, no one ate your in-flight food, and no one tried to sit in your seat. In fact, the hundreds of people on the airplane, despite being mainly strangers, behaved in an entirely civilized and respectful manner throughout.

For most of us in the industrialized world, every aspect of our lives is utterly reliant on thousands of such cooperative interactions with millions of individuals from hundreds of countries, the vast majority of whom we never see, don’t know, and indeed never knew existed. Just how exceptional in nature such intricate coordination is — with many unrelated individuals performing many different roles — remains hard to appreciate. Notwithstanding the familiar examples of ants, bees, and other species known for coordinating their behavior, largely with relatives, nothing remotely as complex as human cooperation is found in any of the other millions of species on the planet. And although modern marvels like air travel are very striking examples of large-scale cooperation, human societies have engaged in impressive feats of organized cooperation for many thousands of years. Carving terraces out of mountains, planting and harvesting crops, building granaries, and managing city-states all involved extraordinary levels of cooperation among community members. Hunter-gatherers also coordinated their actions in cooperative endeavors such as group hunting and foraging, as well as through sharing food, labor, and childcare, and when hostility or disputes with other societies arose. How is it that humans came to be the most cooperative species on earth? And how can understanding our evolutionary history help to explain human cultural, cooperative achievements, whether technological or artistic, linguistic or moral?…

Find out at “On the Origin of Cooperation.”

* Bertrand Russell


As we share and share alike, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III).  He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends (inventions he shared rather than patenting).  But he is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) The Botanic Garden, a poem that anticipates the Big Bang theory in its description of an explosion, a “mass” which “starts into a million suns,” and Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

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