Strengthening the institution-behavior link in the SES Framework to facilitate comparative analysis of environmental public goods dilemmas


  • Courtney Ryder Hammond Wagner Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont Gund Institute for Environment, University of Vermont



social-ecological systems, governance, public goods, complexity, research methods, collective action


Many great environmental challenges take the form of environmental public goods dilemmas, including climate change, water quality deterioration and biodiversity loss. There is a great need for comparative analysis of these challenges to inform the design of governance institutions for sustainable resource management. The Social-ecological Systems (SES) framework provides a foundational structure for analyzing the sustainability of complex, multi-scale SES. However, in application, the SES framework has struggled to facilitate analysis of SES beyond common-pool resource regimes and the emergence of community-based collective action governance institutions. In this paper, I propose to expand the focus of the SES framework on the link between institution and behavior in order to facilitate the application of the SES Framework to environmental public goods dilemmas and the study of diverse institutional arrangements. First, I examine attributes of environmental public goods dilemmas that differentiate them from CPR regimes: the lack of a behavior-reinforcing link, multi-actor and multi-resource system dynamics, higher levels of uncertainty and complexity, and lack of built-in social capital. Then I suggest that these same attributes increase the need to study a broader suite of governance institutions in these systems. I propose that one way to address both of these challenges to the application of the SES framework is to increase the focus on the institution-behavior link within the framework by incorporating variables to investigate the psychological drivers of individual behavior and decision-making. I link the attributes of environmental public goods with the need for an increased focus on actor decision making and behavior. Then I explore psychological and behavioral concepts that show potential to improve our understanding of system dynamics within environmental public goods dilemmas. Finally, I propose revisions to the SES Framework to facilitate this increased focus on the institution-behavior link. Incorporating psychological and behavioral theory into the SES framework to strengthen the institution-behavior link is a promising approach to allow for comparative study of institutional interventions for environmental public goods. Ultimately, a better understanding of which institutions promote behavior change within and across environmental public goods regimes can improve the sustainability of these