Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Article
  • Published:

The emergence of cooperation from shared goals in the governance of common-pool resources


Sustainable use of common-pool resources is a major environmental governance challenge because of possible overexploitation. Communities devise self-governing institutions that avoid overuse and attain long-term benefits of cooperation. It is still unclear, however, what conditions allow cooperation to emerge, leading to greater long-term benefits. Until recently, studies of the sustainable governance of common-pool resources have overlooked feedback between user decisions and resource dynamics and failed to test the ability of shared goals to actually induce cooperation. Here we develop an online game to perform a set of experiments in which users of the same common-pool resource decide on their individual harvesting rates, which in turn are influenced by the resource dynamics. We show that if users share common goals, a high level of self-organized cooperation emerges, leading to long-term resource sustainability. Otherwise, selfish/individualistic behaviours lead to resource depletion. To explain these results, we develop a model of resource-decision dynamics based on optimal control theory and show how it is able to reproduce empirical results. We find that players self-organize and engage in collective action conducive to sustainable governance of common-pool resources by trade-off strategies that balance individual and collective payoff as well as short-term and long-term rewards.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Illustration of the Systemic Sustainability Game for the case of 4 players.
Fig. 2: Comparison between stable equilibria of the resource and cooperator fraction in the two game types for the complete network case.
Fig. 3: Behaviour of strategies evolutionary dynamics with fixed resources.
Fig. 4: Comparison of average individual cumulative payoff for both game types with complete network.
Fig. 5: Comparison between experimental results of the Systemic Sustainability Game and its theoretical prediction.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

Data for all analyses are available at OSF (

Code availability

Code for all analyses is available at OSF (


  1. Davis, K. F., D’Odorico, P. & Rulli, M. C. Moderating diets to feed the future. Earths Future 2, 559–565 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Suweis, S., Carr, J. A., Maritan, A., Rinaldo, A. & D'Odorico, P. Resilience and reactivity of global food security. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 6902–6907 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Dietz, T., Ostrom, E. & Stern, P. C. The struggle to govern the commons. Science 302, 1907–1912 (2003).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Ostrom, E. The challenge of common-pool resources. Environ. Sci. Policy Sustain. Dev. 50, 8–21 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Ostrom, E. A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325, 419–422 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Ostrom, E. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).

  7. Van Laerhoven, F. & Ostrom, E. Traditions and trends in the study of the commons. Int. J. Commons 1, 3–28 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Rocha, J. C., Schill, C., Saavedra-Díaz, L. M., Moreno, R. D. P. & Maldonado, J. H. Cooperation in the face of thresholds, risk, and uncertainty: experimental evidence in fisher communities from Colombia. PLoS ONE 15, e0242363 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Maldonado, J. H. & Moreno-Sanchez, Rd. P. Exacerbating the tragedy of the commons: private inefficient outcomes and peer effect in experimental games with fishing communities. PLoS ONE 11, e0148403 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Baragwanath, K. & Bayi, E. Collective property rights reduce deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117, 20495–20502 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Romulo, C. L., Kennedy, C. J., Gilmore, M. P. & Endress, B. A. Sustainable harvest training in a common pool resource setting in the Peruvian Amazon: limitations and opportunities. Trees For. People 7, 100185 (2022).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Hardin, G. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162, 1243–1248 (1968).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Tavoni, A., Schlüter, M. & Levin, S. The survival of the conformist: social pressure and renewable resource management. J. Theor. Biol. 299, 152–161 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Hauser, O. P., Rand, D. G., Peysakhovich, A. & Nowak, M. A. Cooperating with the future. Nature 511, 220–223 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Hilbe, C., Šimsa, Š., Chatterjee, K. & Nowak, M. A. Evolution of cooperation in stochastic games. Nature 559, 246–249 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Sethi, R. & Somanathan, E. The evolution of social norms in common property resource use. Am. Econ. Rev. 86, 766–788 (1996).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Runyan, C. W., D’Odorico, P. & Shobe, W. The economic impacts of positive feedbacks resulting from deforestation. Ecol. Econ. 120, 93–99 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Tilman, A. R., Plotkin, J. B. & Akçay, E. Evolutionary games with environmental feedbacks. Nat. Commun. 11, 915 (2020).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Janssen, M. A. Introducing ecological dynamics into common-pool resource experiments. Ecol. Soc. (2010).

  20. Casari, M. & Plott, C. R. Decentralized management of common property resources: experiments with a centuries-old institution. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 51, 217–247 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Crépin, A.-S. & Lindahl, T. Grazing games: sharing common property resources with complex dynamics. Environ. Resour. Econ. 44, 29–46 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Clark, C. W. in Mathematical Problems in Biology (ed. van den Driessche, P.) 29–45 (Springer, 1974).

  23. Anderies, J. M. et al. The challenge of understanding decisions in experimental studies of common pool resource governance. Ecol. Econ. 70, 1571–1579 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Ostrom, E. The value-added of laboratory experiments for the study of institutions and common-pool resources. J. Econ. Behav. Organ. 61, 149–163 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Schlüter, M. & Pahl-Wostl, C. Mechanisms of resilience in common-pool resource management systems: an agent-based model of water use in a river basin. Ecol. Soc. 12, 2 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Cardenas, J.-C., Janssen, M. & Bousquet, F. in Handbook on Experimental Economics and the Environment (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013).

  27. Turner, B. L. et al. Illustrating the coupled human–environment system for vulnerability analysis: three case studies. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 100, 8080–8085 (2003).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Liu, J. et al. Systems integration for global sustainability. Science 347, 1258832 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Ostrom, E., Gardner, R., Walker, J., Walker, J. M. & Walker, J. Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources (Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994).

  30. Ostrom, E. Understanding Institutional Diversity (Princeton Univ. Press, 2009).

  31. Nelder, J. A. The fitting of a generalization of the logistic curve. Biometrics 17, 89–110 (1961).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Verhulst, P.-F. Notice sur la loi que la population suit dans son accroissement. Corresp. Math. Phys. 10, 113–126 (1838).

    Google Scholar 

  33. Tsoularis, A. & Wallace, J. Analysis of logistic growth models. Math. Biosci. 179, 21–55 (2002).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. Barabasi, A.-L. & Albert, R. Emergence of scaling in random networks. Science 286, 509–512 (1999).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. Watts, D. J. & Strogatz, S. H. Collective dynamics of ‘small-world’ networks. Nature 393, 440–442 (1998).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. Traulsen, A., Claussen, J. C. & Hauert, C. Coevolutionary dynamics: from finite to infinite populations. Phys. Rev. Lett. 95, 238701 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Kreyszig, E. Introductory Functional Analysis With Applications 1 (John Wiley & Sons, 1978).

  38. Lenhart, S. & Workman, J. T. Optimal Control Applied To Biological Models (Chapman and Hall/CRC, 2007).

  39. Lewis, F. L., Vrabie, D. & Syrmos, V. L. Optimal Control (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

  40. Conway, J. B. A Course in Functional Analysis Vol. 96 (Springer, 2019).

  41. Koenemann, J., Licitra, G., Alp, M. & Diehl, M. OpenOCL–Open Optimal Control Library (2017).

  42. Göllner, L. M., Ballhausen, N., Kliegel, M. & Forstmeier, S. Delay of gratification, delay discounting and their associations with age, episodic future thinking, and future time perspective. Front. Psychol. 8, 2304 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Wilson, D. S. & Sober, E. Reintroducing group selection to the human behavioral sciences. Behav. Brain Sci. 17, 585–608 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Wilson, D. S. & Wilson, E. O. Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. Q. Rev. Biol. 82, 327–348 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Traulsen, A. & Nowak Martin, A. Evolution of cooperation by multilevel selection. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 10952–10955 (2006).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  46. Eckel, C. C., Fatas, E., Godoy, S. & Wilson, R. K. Group-level selection increases cooperation in the public goods game. PLoS ONE 11, e0157840 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Tu, C., D’Odorico, P., Li, Z. & Suweis, S. Systemic Sustainability Game (2022).

Download references


This work was supported by Microsoft AI for Earth (C.T.); Experimental Social Science Laboratory at University of California Berkeley (C.T. and P.D.); Natural Science Fund of Zhejiang Province under Grant No. LZ18G010001, LZ22G010001; Science Foundation of Zhejiang Sci-Tech University under Grant No. 18092125-Y, 22092034-Y (C.T.); LINCON INFN grant (S.S.) and BIRD_UNIPD grant (S.S.).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



C.T. and S.S. conceptualized the project. C.T., Z.L. and S.S. developed the methodology. C.T., P.D. and S.S. conducted the investigations. C.T. and S.S. performed visualization. C.T., P.D. and S.S. acquired funding. P.D. and S.S. administered the project. S.S. supervised the project and wrote the original draft. C.T., P.D. and S.S. wrote, reviewed and edited the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Chengyi Tu or Samir Suweis.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Sustainability thanks Christiane Runyan and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes, Figs. 1–28 and References.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Table 1

All the details of the box-and-whisker charts shown in Fig. 2 and Supplementary Figs. 9–12, including mean, standard deviation, median, minimum, maximum, first quartile and third quartile.

Supplementary Table 2

Detailed description of the statistical tests for Fig. 2.

Supplementary Table 3

Detailed description of the statistical tests for Supplementary Figs. 9–12 by ANOVA.

Supplementary Table 4

Detailed description of the statistical tests for Supplementary Figs. 9–12 by Mann-Whitney test with Bonferroni correction.

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor (e.g. a society or other partner) holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Tu, C., D’Odorico, P., Li, Z. et al. The emergence of cooperation from shared goals in the governance of common-pool resources. Nat Sustain 6, 139–147 (2023).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene