“How to deal with urgent global challenges”

Andrew Ringsmuth C VA 500x500 1


Resources that can be openly accessed and depleted through over-exploitation are called ‘common-pool’ resources (CPRs). When a CPR is small, like a pasture or local fishery, resource harvesters can usually see how their behavior is affecting the resource level and restrain their harvesting accordingly to conserve the resource. However, when a CPR is very large, like the atmosphere or global biodiversity, it may be impossible for individuals to see how it is responding to their behavior. By the time society awakens to the need for conservation, it may be almost too late to organize successful collective action through behavioral change. Time is of the essence.


In our paper “Dynamics of collective action to conserve a large common-pool resource“, recently published in Scientific Reports with Astrid de Wijn and students, David Andersson and Sigrid Bratsberg of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, we used an agent-based model to study the spread of behavioral change through a social network when an initially small number of people realize that society-wide conservation action is needed as soon as possible. We also tested the potential of different interventions to speed up this process.

We were able to show that the social dynamics unfold in two distinct stages.

In the first stage, society rapidly polarizes into clusters of people who cooperate with the needed behavioral changes, and those who deny them. These clusters act as self-reinforcing echo chambers, tending to maintain social polarization.


The second, slower dynamical stage is a slow struggle between the clusters. Here, meaningful changes happen only at the clusters’ ‘edges’, where cooperators and deniers interact directly, trying to convert one another. Although the process is gradual, one side eventually wins as the opposing clusters dissolve inwards from their edges and society converges to a consensus.

These results indicate that the speed at which large-scale social change happens is limited by the speed with which echo chambers can be dissolved.

We found that this speed depends most strongly on the level of connectivity between agents, and on the influence of their broader sociopolitical environment. When agents are better connected, there are more opportunities for constructive interactions between disagreeing people, and even gentle nudges from the sociopolitical environment can give one side the advantage in these interactions, thus speeding up the convergence to consensus. Moreover, under some conditions there are tipping points at which even small changes in parameters like the strength of the nudge from the sociopolitical environment can determine whether the system converges to full denial or full cooperation.


Our modeling results suggest that media, and in particular, large-scale social media networks play a crucial role in determining our collective ability to reach consensus on urgent global challenges. These networks’ algorithms have learned to keep users engaged by exploiting their basic tribal instincts, either reinforcing a sense of belonging with already-agreeable content or stoking outrage with content that is seen to represent an objectionable outside group. The result is ideological echo chambers at an unprecedented scale and oversimplified, emotionally charged public discourse that makes it difficult to have the kind of communications needed: constructive engagement between disagreeing groups about urgent realities.


On the bright side, however, with their now-huge memberships, social media are in a position to have a huge positive effect if they can find ways to adjust their business models. If they can continue to engage users while also exposing them to content that challenges misinformed views on climate change, for example, and also encourage empathy and constructive interactions between disagreeing groups, they may be able to transform themselves into powerful catalysts for positive social change.

The core messages from our work are, first, that large-scale social change requires people to reach out across ideological lines and discuss, empathically and constructively, with people who initially disagree with them. Those can be difficult conversations to have because no one likes to have their worldview challenged and we all tend to ignore evidence that makes us uncomfortable. But our research suggests that these kinds of interactions are vitally important if we want to act at the speed now required to mitigate urgent, global challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss.

Our second core message is that we can improve our chances of successful collective action by combining helpful factors. Favourable social connectivity and a sociopolitical environment that encourages positive change are more powerful together than either is alone.

Andrew Ringsmuth’s contribution to this work was completed durhing his time as a PostDoc at the CSH Vienna and MedUni Vienna (Feb to Dec 2020). He is now a PostDoc at the Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change at the University of Graz. He remains a member of the CSH Associate Faculty, so we will be staying in close contact.


D. Andersson, S. Bratsberg, A. K. Ringsmuth, A. S. de Wijn
Scientific Reports
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