Faculty & Research -How to improve engagement in natural resources conservation?

How to improve engagement in natural resources conservation?

People decisions conduct to a dramatic fall in natural resources (tragedy of commons). A study with a large French population shows the conditions of this decline and what could reduce it. A closer resource, information on the threshold for sustainability and women reduce the resource decline.

Whole swathes of tropical forests are destroyed every day to grow crops for the global food processing markets. Environmental organizations speak of deforestation imported by industrialized countries. In addition, the resources of the fishermen of the West African coast are dwindling, exploited offshore by factory ships flying a wide variety of flags. In addition to disrupting their economic balance, this fishing jeopardizes the reproduction of fish species. These are examples of activities that contribute to the reduction of biodiversity and climate change.

Natural resources are the wealth that the earth provides to all those who live there. The question of their exploitation is no longer a thought, but a reality that translates into the reduction of forest areas, the decrease of fish populations, the decrease of biodiversity and climate disruption. This exploitation is carried out on a local, national and international scale. For an individual, the dilemma of the use of natural resources is posed at several scales. By exploiting a resource far from his place of residence, he favors the resources close to him and deteriorates the resources of other individuals. Moreover, by exploiting a resource today, he deteriorates its access for future generations. In the framework of a large-scale experiment in France, we explore how individuals react in these different dimensions.

A large-scale experiment with general population

The principle of the experiment is simple. It is based on an economic game based on the management of common resources. Each participant in the experiment was confronted with a natural resource (fish or trees) available at a local scale (proximity) and at a national scale (distance). He could take between 0 and 5 units at each scale. Each unit collected gave the right to a lottery ticket to win vouchers. In addition, everyone was given information about the reproduction rate of the resources (fast for fish, slow for trees). A subgroup was informed about the threshold of harvesting that should not be exceeded to ensure that the resource is always available for future generations.

During the European Researchers’ Night, 2641 people aged 10 years and older participated in this experiment organized in 11 cities in France in 2015. On average, the “fishermen” caught 2.4 fish and the “woodcutters” cut down 2.1 trees. If these average numbers are compared to the thresholds that should not be exceeded to ensure the reproduction of the resources (3 for fish and 1 for trees), we can say that future generations will be able to enjoy the fish, but not the trees, which will disappear quite quickly. This means that participants perceived that trees reproduce slower than fish, but that their resource removal is in the middle between 0 and 5 (the maximum they could remove), regardless of the resource considered.

Information reduces the resource decline

When participants are informed of the threshold that must not be exceeded in order for the resource to continue to exist, this does not greatly reduce the number of fish taken (the removal was already below the threshold). However, this information does reduce the number of trees cut more dramatically, but without reaching the threshold. Thus, the number of trees will continue to decrease for future generations, but not as fast.

Furthermore, we find that participants remove fewer resources when they are at the local scale (close to home) than when they are at the national scale (a larger territory). This relates to the examples mobilized in the introduction. Indeed, it seems less “problematic” to exploit resources far from home than close to home. In a way, it is less visible.

Finally, we find that women are, on average, more reasonable than men when it comes to resource harvesting, especially at the local level. However, younger participants extract more resources than older ones.

Thus, we show in an experiment with over 2500 participants that a tragedy of the commons exists. That is to say that in the long run resources can disappear if nothing is done to prevent it. Properly informing people, based on clear and scientifically relevant information, can slow down the degradation of natural resources. Everyone is for the preservation of natural resources, but the implementation of an experiment including economic stakes shows that despite these good intentions, our individual interest can lead us to immediately degrade our environment.


We use an economic game based on the management of common resources during the European Researchers’ Night which took place in 2015, with over 2500 participants from 11 French cities.

Applications and beneficiaries

The experiment underlines the fact that, in a context of scarce resources, mobilizing what we call the “behavioral capital” of individuals and developing environmental education can be effective tools. This has an impact on people’s resistance to change.

It’s also about teaching the perceived distant consequences: by overexploiting the environment, the individual not only diminishes the opportunities for other individuals to obtain a reasonable share of resources, but also has an impact on the environment’s ability to regenerate itself over the long term, thus impinging on the ability of future generations to draw on resources.

Reference to the research

Tisserand J.-C., Blondel S., Hopfensitz A., Lohéac Y., Mantilla C., Mateu G., Rosaz J., Rozan A., Willenger M., Sutan A. (2022). “Management of Common Pool Resources in a Nation-Wide Experiment”, Ecological Economics, vol. 201, 107566, 1-14.

Consult the research paper

Link to media

In French in The Conversation (12/2022)

In French in Les Echos Start (03/2023)