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The Drama of the Commons
one or another course of action. If adaptive, the shift to “intensification” response strategies reduces some of those costs and helps restore “flexibility” to actors and their social units….
The approach was welcomed by ecological anthropologists for several reasons, including the fact that it fit nicely into a more actor-based ecology paralleling the neo-Darwinian shift in biology, in contrast with prior tendencies to relegate individuals and social groups to passive roles within cultures or systems (Vayda and McCay, 1975, 1977). The economics of flexibility can be translated into the topic at hand. For instance, if simple adjustments in technology compensate for decline in common resources, there is little reason to bother with the task of creating and changing regulatory institutions, particularly as that task can divert resources from other important issues such as finding food and shelter for one’s family. On the other hand, if those technological changes do not work, or if the environmental problem worsens or expands its scope, “deeper” or more costly changes are more likely to take effect, such as those implied in personal decisions to create or join social movements or social agreements to create, implement, and enforce regulations. To the extent that they work, they then free up the “lower level” capacities to respond to other and new issues. Governing institutions, like all leadership, are successful when they allow people to return to doing what they do best.
This line of thinking corresponds in broad outline with the work of economic historians on conditions for changes in property rights and other institutions, with a focus on transaction costs in relation to changing technology, population pressure, and other facts affecting costs and benefits of creating and maintaining new institutions (e.g., Anderson and Hill, 1977; Libecap, 1986; North, 1981). But there are some differences. As developed by human ecologists, including geographers and others (Grossman, 1977), a focus on responses to natural hazards has led to generalizations about how individual and social responses may be expected to relate to environmental variables. Temporal pattern is one class of environmental variables: The magnitude, speed of onset, duration, and relative novelty of environmental changes might be expected to affect the levels and kinds of responses (Barton, 1969). Spatial patterns also affect responses. An excellent example is the geographer Waddell’s (1975) analysis of how the Fringe Enga people of the New Guinea highlands coped with recurrent, and sometimes severe, plant-killing frosts. In addition, Vayda (1976) used the approach in his study of war in three Oceanian societies; Lees (1974) developed it in her analysis of the development of hydraulic control institutions and technology; Rudel (1980) examined automobile-related responses in the United States to the energy shortage of the early 1970s from this perspective; and Morren (1980) used it to analyze the pattern of responses to a drought in Great Britain. I used it in my analyses of responses to fisheries decline in Newfoundland (McCay, 1978, 1979) and New Jersey (McCay, 1981).
The “economics of flexibility” provides a general predictive framework for