Progress towards sustainability requires changes in our individual and collective behaviour. Yet, our fundamental understanding of behaviour in relation to environmental change remains severely limited. In particular, little attention has been given to how individual and collective behaviours respond to, and are shaped by, non-linear environmental change (such as ‘regime shifts’) and its inherent uncertainties. The thesis makes two main contributions to the literature: 1) it provides one of the first accounts of human behaviour and collective action in relation to ecological regime shifts and associated uncertainties; and 2) extends the incipient behavioural common-pool resource literature that acknowledges social-ecological dynamics and ecological complexity. The overarching aim of this thesis is to further advance an empirically grounded understanding of human behaviour in social-ecological systems. In particular, the thesis attempts to unravel critical social-ecological factors and mechanisms for the sustainability of common-pool resources. This is especially relevant for contexts in which livelihoods can be more directly threatened by regime shifts. The following methods are applied: behavioural economic experiments in the lab (with students; Papers I and II) and in the field (with small-scale fishers from four different communities in the Colombian Caribbean; Paper III), and agent-based modelling empirically informed by a subset of the lab experiments (Paper IV). Paper I tests the effect of an endogenously driven regime shift on the emergence of cooperation and sustainable resource use. Paper II tests the effect of different risk levels of such a regime shift. The regime shift in both papers has negative consequences for the productivity of the shared resource. Paper III assesses the effect of different degrees of uncertainty about a climate-induced threshold in stock dynamics on the exploitation patterns; as well as the role of social and ecological local context. Paper IV explores critical individual-level factors and processes affecting the simultaneous emergence of collective action and sustainable resource use. Results cumulatively suggest that existing scientific knowledge indicating the potential for ecological regime shifts should be communicated to affected local communities, including the remaining uncertainties, as this information can encourage collective action for sustainable resource use. Results also highlight the critical role of ecological knowledge, knowledge-sharing, perceived ecological uncertainties, and the role local contexts play for sustainable outcomes. This thesis enriches the literature on social-ecological systems by demonstrating how a behavioural experimental approach can contribute new insights relevant for sustainability. Overall, these insights indicate that, given the opportunity and the willingness of people to come together, share knowledge, exchange ideas, and build trust, potential ecological crises can encourage collective action, and uncertainties can be turned into opportunities for dealing with change in constructive ways. This provides a hopeful outlook in the face of escalating environmental change and inherent uncertainties.
At the time of the doctoral defense, the following paper was unpublished and had a status as follows: Paper 3: Manuscript.