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The Tragedy of Commonsense Project Management: Multilevel Thinking as a Core Competency for Sustainability Scientists
Zebu Bos_taurus_indicus

Sustainability scientists around the world seek to address the tragedy of the commons across diverse social-environmental contexts, yet, ironically, we are all too often blind to another, perhaps more personal, social tragedy that we may be generating in the pursuit of these noble objectives. What I have come to call the tragedy of commonsense project management refers to the use of social intuition rather than methodological reasoning for the design of research project groups, and implementation of interventions for sustainable resource management. That is to say, although a good deal of sustainability science is conducted with a respectable level of scientific rigor, when these same scientists are tasked with managing the research project itself, or designing a bridge between knowledge and policy (interventions), “science” is then viewed, too often, as having run its course.

In this commentary on Waring & Tremblay’s focus article, I make the argument that their Cultural Multi-Level Selection (CMLS) framework applies not only to the natural resource dilemmas studied by sustainability scientists, but also to the very project groups we must manage around these important research topics.

I want to highlight the tragic irony of utilizing commonsense to drive applied research projects on common-pool resources through a brief case study on zebu fodder harvesting in Madagascar. I’ll conclude by reflecting on the need for the CMLS framework to be utilized more strategically within sustainability science curricula to cultivate new competencies among young researchers across disciplines. In short, the causal understanding of multilevel social dynamics must come to be regarded as a core competency among sustainability scientists in the twenty-first century if we are to move past commonsense project management and towards the reliable development of effective strategies for the commons of our world.

A Case Study of Commonsense and the Commons of Madagascar

Madagascar is the only country in the world whose real per-capita wealth has decreased dramatically since the 1960’s despite the absence war or violent conflict (World Bank 2015). Corruption is rife, from the scale of classrooms and communities to police and politicians. Land-use issues of all sorts entail entanglements of traditional rights at the most local level to the ‘neo-colonial’ claims of international industrialists. The challenges that face this biodiversity hotspot are one multi-level cooperation dilemma after another.

A recent research project was tasked with developing an international, interdisciplinary study on the sustainability of the harvesting practices of zebu (cattle) herdsmen for a specific regional fodder species, samata (Euphorbia stenoclada). Samata is an endemic Euphorbia species that is harvested for cattle feed in open-access, wild growth contexts and increasingly cultivated in privatized, small-farmer settings. The ~5-year project included a phase of basic research (~3.5 years), followed by ~18 months development of applied, collaborative interventions to promote regional capacity-building around identified sustainable management solutions.

The Waring et al. (2015) article in Ecology & Society highlights several ‘routes for interventions’ into sustainability policy based on the integrated insights of a CMLS framework. The first two of these intervention routes are particularly relevant for this case study because their explicit rejection among these researchers in Madagascar led to a range of new problems rather than solutions. Waring et al. argue that (1) targeting the appropriate level of selection and (2) altering the level(s) of selection offer two central tools within the emerging CMLS toolkit. I’ll highlight here how social intuitions, combined with a misunderstanding of CMLS theory, led this project in Madagascar towards a commonsense solution with questionable impact on the commons in question.

The primary investigator of this zebu fodder topic discovered that, unsurprisingly, classic social dynamics of privatization and escalating wealth inequality were occurring within the context of increasing resource (zebu fodder) scarcity in conjunction with the well-known lack of effective governance among the rural villages being studied. Interestingly, this investigator also discovered that, although any single village was unable (in fact, unwilling) to effectively monitor or regulate exploitation of the fodder resource by “outsiders,” these out-group herdsmen were coming from a limited set of neighboring villages. The investigator became strongly pessimistic about finding any viable solution, arguing that if an individual village cannot delineate or monitor who has access rights to the resource, there is little hope in evolving an effective governance scheme.

Although this investigator was mired in pessimism about the possibility of identifying an effective intervention, her larger research project (composed of multiple working groups) was still accountable for the development of an intervention based on the original research. In this context, two divergent intervention strategies emerged during the early planning stage of the final year for implementation.

Strategy A consisted of developing a “comic book” that promoted “sustainable harvesting” (i.e., harvesting only some fodder from each tree) as the “rational” management approach which individual herdsmen should adopt.

Strategy B was focused on developing an accessible curriculum on common-pool resource dynamics (sensu Wilson et al. 2013; Waring et al. 2015) for the village schools and farmer groups that would facilitate bottom-up discussions around potential policy solutions.

Implementation of strategy A was a forgone conclusion. Strategy B was discussed and adopted through a majority consensus of project members early on in this final implementation stage as a complementary approach to strategy A. This dual-strategy approach was deemed unacceptable to some proponents of strategy A. In response, a particularly strong personality within the strategy A group engaged project authorities outside of the democratic decision-making process, insisting that the project proceed only with strategy A, the comic book focused on individual behavior change as a “rational choice.”

This top-down decision-making resulted in significant strife within the project group itself, causing multiple members of the team to disengage from the overall intervention design. At the time of implementation, even remaining members directly engaged in the intervention planning expressed severe skepticism at the potential efficacy of the comic book, inviting comments such as “I don’t think this will really do anything” and “…maybe the farmers will wipe their butts with it.” Early evaluations indicate that farmer comprehension and interest is in line with this speculation.

For many in the sustainable development community, this case study is almost not worth noting. Projects are mismanaged due to internal conflict all the time, and interventions are routinely ineffective. What I want to draw attention to is the homologous challenges between the project management and the intervention design. In both cases, social intuition and rigid disciplinary thinking prevented the identification of the appropriate level of selection, as well as altering the level of selection towards valued outcomes (the routes of intervention identified in Waring et al. 2015).

That is, while the project itself was perceived by outsiders (and stakeholders) as a functionally-integrated unit, this was far from the case according to perceptions within the various project working groups. Leadership within the project explained this lack of social cohesion by stating, “the project is simply too large,” yet, with a team comprised by ~50 individuals, clearly, humanity has historical precedent for this scale of cooperation. What was lacking, from a CMLS perspective, was a coherent plan for identifying and altering the appropriate levels of selection during different stages of the project (see Fig. 1). In the absence of appropriate group-level mechanisms, the ‘strong personality’ who favored strategy A co-opted selection pressure towards his interests in a highly predictable fashion. In steering the evolution of group dynamics towards strategy A alone, and away from project-level cooperation, the intervention lost out on critical interdisciplinary perspectives that could have increased its efficacy.

 Eirdosh Fig 1
Fig 1.   A Generalized Model of Cultural Selection Dynamics for Sustainability Science Project Groups. The CMLS framework of Waring and colleagues applies not just to common-pool resource dilemmas, but to the research project groups themselves. This draft diagram adapts the graphic models of the environmental case studies presented in Waring et al. (2015) to a highly generalized and theoretical representation of cultural selection requirements across different stages of a typical applied research project group within sustainability sciences. Both within and between each project stage, the appropriate level of selection may vary significantly. By mapping a project’s projected cooperation requirements at the outset of a project, participants may better understand the appropriateness of respecting autonomy and coordination during different stages. This may allow group members to plan mechanisms for appropriate levels of cooperation (sensu Wilson et al. 2013) or may simply provide helpful framing of commonsense discussions on these often difficult-to-manage social dynamics.

The comic book intervention itself posited the core problem as rooted in the individual-level selection of behavioral variation (i.e., if only each individual herdsman would rationally harvest less, sustainability would be achieved), despite the project’s own research pointing towards inter-village cooperation as the requisite scale of cooperation. By ignoring these CMLS dynamics in both project management and intervention design, this project simultaneously created a hostile working environment among colleagues while steering the conversations among natural resource users in precisely the wrong direction. The tragedy of commonsense project management is not something the commons of Madagascar can afford to experience much longer!

Cultivating Competencies in the Sustainability Science Curriculum

It could be argued that those in the project above simply should have made stronger rational arguments in favor of CMLS dynamics, but I will argue that in this case rational argumentation did not stand a chance against the intuitive sway of prevailing commonsense. The Evolution Institute may be able to assemble top researchers, a mountain of empirical evidence, and a stunningly coherent synthesis of human sciences to support the CMLS framework, but if sustainability scientists are not receiving the training needed to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes required of cultural evolutionary theory, this work will fall on deaf ears. Indeed, the competencies required to engage Waring and colleagues’ framework are diverse, nuanced, and complicated, even among this new generation of cultural evolutionists. To succeed, we will need to engage professional curriculum designers and evolutionary educators in identifying the core competency needs for multi-level thinking in the human sciences and work strategically to integrate this training across the extant disciplines of sustainability science.


Waring, T. M., M. Ann Kline, J. S. Brooks, S. H. Goff, J. Gowdy, M. A. Janssen, P. E. Smaldino and J. Jacquet. )2015). A multilevel evolutionary framework for sustainability analysis. Ecology and Society 20 (2): 34. [online, pdf]

Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.010

World Bank. (2015). Madagascar – Systematic country diagnostic. Washington, D.C., USA. Retrieved from


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  1. Joe Brewer says:

    This is, in a word, FANTASTIC.

    Thank you, Dustin. The example you give for group facilitation to embrace multi-level selection theory is powerful — and consistent with my own experiences as a facilitator for projects of many sizes. The “make or break” ingredient of every collaborative project is having the right scale of governance for each key function of the group.

    You’ve already alluded to this additional factor, called polycentric governance by the late Elinor Ostrom, which is the observation that decision making oftentimes needs to be allocated to multiple scales at the same time. Some decisions are better made locally, in small groups. Other decisions are better made globally, at the scale of the entire community. And there are points in between.

    The many nuances of this approach are effectively unknown by the majority of social scientists, urban planners, policymakers, and advocacy groups working to enact positive social change. It will be one of our tasks to design the curricula and build the training programs to get this information out into the world.



    • Dustin Eirdosh says:

      Thank you Joe! And you add an important point to clarify in my Figure 1 above, which is just a very rough sketch anyway. In projects such as described different phases of the project may require some linear changing of cooperation-scale, but as well – multiple key functions may need to be managed at the same time at different scales, and my diagram does not cover this. Just an early attempt to visualize these dynamics that, as you note, are too often not seen by many practitioners – and often with dire consequence. Onward indeed!