Overexploitation of renewable resources today has a high cost on the welfare of future generations1,2,3,4,5. Unlike in other public goods games6,7,8,9, however, future generations cannot reciprocate actions made today. What mechanisms can maintain cooperation with the future? To answer this question, we devise a new experimental paradigm, the ‘Intergenerational Goods Game’. A line-up of successive groups (generations) can each either extract a resource to exhaustion or leave something for the next group. Exhausting the resource maximizes the payoff for the present generation, but leaves all future generations empty-handed. Here we show that the resource is almost always destroyed if extraction decisions are made individually. This failure to cooperate with the future is driven primarily by a minority of individuals who extract far more than what is sustainable. In contrast, when extractions are democratically decided by vote, the resource is consistently sustained. Voting10,11,12,13,14,15 is effective for two reasons. First, it allows a majority of cooperators to restrain defectors. Second, it reassures conditional cooperators16 that their efforts are not futile. Voting, however, only promotes sustainability if it is binding for all involved. Our results have implications for policy interventions designed to sustain intergenerational public goods.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Hardin, G. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162, 1243–1248 (1968)
Ostrom, E. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions For Collective Action (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990)
Levin, S. A. Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons (Basic Books, 2000)
Milinski, M., Semmann, D., Krambeck, H. J. & Marotzke, J. Stabilizing the Earth’s climate is not a losing game: supporting evidence from public goods experiments. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 3994–3998 (2006)
Wade-Benzoni, K. A. & Tost, L. P. The egoism and altruism of intergenerational behavior. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 13, 165–193 (2009)
Ostrom, E., Walker, J. & Gardner, R. Covenants with and without a sword: self-governance is possible. Am. Polit. Sci. Rev. 86, 404–417 (1992)
Milinski, M., Semmann, D., Bakker, T. C. M. & Krambeck, H.-J. Cooperation through indirect reciprocity: image scoring or standing strategy? Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 268, 2495–2501 (2001)
Fehr, E. & Gächter, S. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415, 137–140 (2002)
Rand, D. G., Dreber, A., Ellingsen, T., Fudenberg, D. & Nowak, M. A. Positive interactions promote public cooperation. Science 325, 1272–1275 (2009)
Holcombe, R. G. The median voter model in public choice theory. Public Choice 61, 115–125 (1989)
Walker, J. M., Gardner, R., Herr, A. & Ostrom, E. Collective choice in the commons: experimental results on proposed allocation rules and votes. Econ. J. 110, 212–234 (2000)
Ertan, A., Page, T. & Putterman, L. Who to punish? Individual decisions and majority rule in mitigating the free rider problem. Eur. Econ. Rev. 53, 495–511 (2009)
Putterman, L., Tyran, J.-R. & Kamei, K. Public goods and voting on formal sanction schemes. J. Public Econ. 95, 1213–1222 (2011)
Kamei, K., Putterman, L. & Tyran, J.-R. State or nature? Formal vs. informal sanctioning in the voluntary provision of public goods. Exp. Econ. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10683-014-9405-0 (2014)
Bernard, M., Dreber, A., Strimling, P. & Eriksson, K. The subgroup problem: When can binding voting on extractions from a common pool resource overcome the tragedy of the commons? J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 91, 122–130 (2013)
Fischbacher, U., Gächter, S. & Fehr, E. Are people conditionally cooperative? Evidence from a public goods experiment. Econ. Lett. 71, 397–404 (2001)
Coase, R. H. The problem of social cost. J. Law Econ. 3, 1–44 (1960)
Mueller, D. C. Public Choice (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979)
Williamson, O. E. The Economic Institutions of Capitalism (Simon & Schuster, 1985)
Forsythe, R., Horowitz, J. L., Savin, N. E. & Sefton, M. Fairness in simple bargaining games. Games Econ. Behav. 6, 347–369 (1994)
Camerer, C. F. Behavioral Game Theory: Experiments in Strategic Interaction (Princeton Univ. Press, 2003)
Charness, G. & Rabin, M. Understanding social preferences with simple tests. Q. J. Econ. 117, 817–869 (2002)
Fosgaard, T., Hansen, L. G. & Wengström, E. Framing and misperceptions in a public good experiment. Working paper 2011/11. (Institute for Food and Resource Economics, 2011)
Amir, O., Rand, D. G. & Gal, Y. K. Economic games on the internet: the effect of $1 stakes. PLoS ONE 7, e31461 (2012)
Rand, D. G., Greene, J. D. & Nowak, M. A. Spontaneous giving and calculated greed. Nature 489, 427–430 (2012)
Jacquet, J. et al. Intra-and intergenerational discounting in the climate game. Nature Climate Change 3, 1025–1028 (2013)
Cadsby, C. B. & Maynes, E. Gender and free riding in a threshold public goods game: experimental evidence. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 34, 603–620 (1998)
Oullier, O. Behavioural insights are vital to policy-making. Nature 501, 463 (2013)
Benkler, Y. The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-interest (Random House, 2011)
Haynes, L., Service, O., Goldacre, B. & Torgerson, D. Test, learn, adapt: developing public policy with randomised controlled trials. UK Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2131581 (2012)
We thank A. Dreber for discussion and three anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback. Financial support from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, the Harvard Office for Sustainability and the John Templeton Foundation is gratefully acknowledged.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Extended data figures and tables
Extended Data Figure 1 Bootstrapping simulations demonstrate the robustness of full voting and the failure of partial voting.
We address sources of noise in the sequence of events that occurred in our experiment by conducting a set of computer simulations using the data generated by our participants. We randomly sample (with replacement) a series of generations of participant decisions, and calculate the fraction of those generations in which the pool was refilled. For each condition, we simulate 10,000 pools (or 1,000,000 pools if δ < 0.8) for 15 generations. a, Simulated data for the unregulated, full voting and partial voting conditions show that full voting is by far the most successful at sustaining the pool. b, Simulated data for the T = 40%, T = 30%, δ = 0.7 and δ = 0.6 conditions shows that reducing δ has only a small effect, and although reducing T does undermine sustainability, the effect is much less striking than that of unregulated or partial voting despite the higher value of T in these less-regulated conditions.
Extended Data Figure 2 Countries with more democratic governments have more sustainable energy policies.
Energy sustainability index (as measured by the World Energy organization) is shown as a function of the democracy index (as measured by The Economist Intelligence Unit) for n = 128 countries. A strong positive association is clearly visible, and this association is robust to controlling for gross domestic product (GDP), Gini index, population size, literacy rate, unemployment rate, life expectancy and level of corruption. Thus we provide preliminary empirical support for the role of democracy in promoting sustainability outside the laboratory. We adopt the colouring and naming scheme from The Economist Intelligence Unit’s classification of regimes.
About this article
Cite this article
Hauser, O., Rand, D., Peysakhovich, A. et al. Cooperating with the future. Nature 511, 220–223 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13530
Journal of Environmental Psychology (2020)
Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics (2020)
Caring for the future can turn tragedy into comedy for long-term collective action under risk of collapse
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020)
International Journal of Modern Physics C (2020)
Anthropogenic climate change as a monumental niche construction process: background and philosophical aspects
Biology & Philosophy (2020)