Conservation and Society

: 2014  |  Volume : 12  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 229--232

Introduction: Moving Beyond the 'Rational Actor' in Environmental Governance and Conservation

Nicole D Peterson1, Cindy Isenhour2,  
1 Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, USA
2 Department of Anthropology, University of Maine, Orono, ME, USA

Correspondence Address:
Nicole D Peterson
Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC


In this brief introduction, we examine the themes and issues that link the three papers in this special section. In each case, neoliberal conservation practices appear to be predicated on a certain kind of individual subject with certain kinds of motives and behaviours-the rational actor. Taken together, these three papers challenge three assumptions of rational actor models, including that individuals are self-interested and attempt to maximise their own benefits, that they only respond to economic incentives, and that economic markets are free, mutual, and rational. Together these articles promote greater attention to how individuals are conceptualised in conservation efforts, and suggest alternative ways to think through conservation projects.

How to cite this article:
Peterson ND, Isenhour C. Introduction: Moving Beyond the 'Rational Actor' in Environmental Governance and Conservation.Conservat Soc 2014;12:229-232

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Peterson ND, Isenhour C. Introduction: Moving Beyond the 'Rational Actor' in Environmental Governance and Conservation. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2014 [cited 2020 Feb 23 ];12:229-232
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Neoliberalism has become a widely discussed topic in the social sciences, as scholars struggle to understand the profound economic, social, political, and moral implications of neoliberal-inspired ideas and policies, including their effects on environmental conservation (e.g. Comaroff and Comaroff 2001; Harvey 2005). While recognising that processes widely regarded as 'neoliberal' are not monolithic in logic, design or outcome (Castree 2008), most studies of neoliberal conservation focus on the ways that market processes of commodification and trade penetrate proposed solutions to environmental problems, essentially reregulating nature through quantification and commodification, delineating new territories of control and access, and devolving responsibility away from central governments and toward 'democratic' networks of markets and civil actors who are expected to act rationally on the market to ensure environmental welfare (Igoe and Brockington 2007). Igoe and Brockington (2007) observed in their introduction to a special issue of this journal that few scholars had examined the implications of neoliberalism for conservation. Since then, several special issues (Antipode in 2010; Geoforum in 2012; Development and Change in 2012) and other publications have evaluated the myriad ways that neoliberalism has affected conservation, such as through processes of commoditisation or the marketing of nature (Neves 2010; Arsel and Büscher 2012; Roth and Dressler 2012), the role of conservation in supporting capitalism (Brockington and Duffy 2010; Doane 2012; Sullivan 2013), and the relationship between neoliberalism, governance, and governmentality (Carrier and West 2009; Büscher 2010; Fletcher 2010).

While these studies have theorised neoliberalism and examined the effects of its varied forms on conservation, we argue that less attention has been focused on a fundamental assumption that underlies and ultimately makes neoliberal conservation possible. The three papers of this special section draw from literature on fisheries, forestry, and biodiversity conservation to critically examine dominant assumptions about rational decision making and behaviour. Their results illustrate how these assumptions help individualise, naturalise, and depoliticise neoliberal conservation, and contribute to failed conservation interventions. In essence, the neoliberal conservation practices that these three papers examine are predicated on a certain kind of individual subject with certain kinds of motives and behaviours-the rational actor.

Individuals have been at the heart of decision-making theories for decades. Though social scientists have long argued that real world decisions rarely follow ideas proposed by rational choice theory (Hastie 2001; Markman and Medin 2002), these models continue to be the basis for neoliberal conservation policies and interventions. In rational choice theory, the individual is the unit of analysis, and his or her behaviours, motivations, and preferences are at the centre of theories on economic behaviour (Gigerenzer 2000). In addition, rational choice models assume that individuals will naturally attempt to maximise their benefits, or utility, in their decision making (Clark and Whiteside 2003), will act selfishly to do so, and expect others to do the same (Sen 1977).

Not satisfied with these generalised macro-level models and descriptions of human behaviours and environmental efforts, the three ethnographic papers included here animate the realities of individuals wrestling with the ethics of conservation. Ethnographic analyses, the product of years or even decades of engagement with environmental issues in a specific location, provide a deeper exploration of decision making and behaviour as they relate to conservation. These papers argue, through their analyses, that the idea of the rational actor is deeply problematic for conservation practices.

This introduction briefly outlines three primary faults in neoliberal assumptions of the 'rational actor' as communicated by our three cases, and suggests alternative models of behaviour that might lend themselves to the creation of more effective and inclusive conservation programs. These faults include assumptions of self-interested individuals, who then respond only to economic incentives, and who trade in idealised markets. Together these articles promote greater attention to how individuals are conceptualised in conservation efforts, and suggest alternative ways to think through conservation projects.

 The Individualistic Logics of 'Rational Choice'

The assumption that individuals are self-interested economic maximisers is pervasive in market-based conservation interventions. Long supported by ideas like Hardin's (1968) 'Tragedy of the commons,' this individualising logic links degradation to individual choice and solutions to economic incentives. The biologists and fisheries managers in the case Peterson (This issue) presents, for example, assume that local fishermen 'choose' to overfish because it is in their rational, economic self-interest. By viewing the fisheries as a commons overrun by self-interest, fishermen are simplified to profiteers who must be controlled. Peterson's analysis illustrates that these 'exercises of power over fishermen' failed, in part, because they did not account for the reality that culpability for overfishing could (and for the sake of more effective conservation, should) be spread across the entire market, from predatory fish prices to the rising costs of gasoline. Similarly, Isenhour's (This issue) analysis of palm oil supply chain interventions highlights how the recent policy emphasis on generating consumer demand, responsibility, and choice for more sustainably-produced palm oil has had an individualising effect, when responsibility for forest degradation is, in reality, shared by many market and non-market actors.


In our cases, as in many others, we see that individuals are the target for regulation, either by selves or others, and that this can occur by new rules with consequences, or, increasingly, through incentives that reward conservation behaviours. The assumption that individuals are driven specifically by monetary interests has also translated into the recent emphasis on economic incentives. Indeed, incentives have been central to many recent neoliberal conservation efforts as well as the monetary valuation of resources and ecosystem services (Brandon and Wells 1992; Fisher 2001 in Stern 2010). Peterson's (This issue) case explores incentives for cooperation in a marine protected area, including promises of economic development and access permits. These incentives, based on the individualism of rational actor theories, can erode community. Doane's (This issue) case study of shifting conservation regimes in Mexico, clearly illustrates this point, tracing how individual payments for ecosystem services (PES) undermine community organisations and equalities by "obviat[ing] the need to generate consensus". These individual incentives ultimately serve the needs of those who see communal structures as "an impediment to the development of real markets in these services. For example, contracts would have to be made with community rather than individual consent and might be cancelled when a new set of communal authorities took office" (Doane, This issue).

Yet, as Berkes (2004: 629) also observed, motivation is multi-dimensional and "equity and empowerment are often more important than monetary incentives." Too often, as in the cases presented by Doane (This issue) and Peterson (This issue), assumptions of individual interests and motivation gloss over more salient considerations for local communities, and have the potential to create inequality, threaten social trust, and tear apart community-based institutions long associated with the sustainable use of resources.

 Free, Mutual, and Rational Market Exchange

The apparent persuasiveness of the metaphor of the market transaction has allowed various conservation projects to, without question, accept buyer-seller exchanges as natural and rational (Milne and Adams 2012) and thus non-political (Hannesson 2006 in Carothers and Chambers 2012). It therefore becomes easy to ignore the inequalities within, and created by, market-based exchanges between two parties imagined as both mutually consenting and acting on free choice. Yet, it is also important to ask what leads people (like conservationists and natural resource managers) to believe that this very specific market metaphor, based on laissez-faire capitalism, is appropriate for conservation.

This uncritical faith in the justice of the market rests upon ideas about individualised rational choice, free from social and cultural context. As Doane (This issue) points out, this conceptualisation of the market is a deeply embedded cultural model (see also Carrier 1997, 2012). And it is within this dominant cultural model that neoliberalism has become hegemonic in conservation practices (Sullivan 2006; Igoe et al. 2010; Büscher et al. 2012).

Yet, as all three cases make clear, in reality market exchanges are rarely equal or based on a well-informed, unrestricted or rational choice as the designers of market-based conservation interventions have assumed. Indeed, as Peterson (This issue) argues, the motives and behaviours of local fishermen are reflective of Granovetter's (1985) model of decision making, which views actors as inextricably embedded in social, economic, and political relations that shape and can often restrict choice.

Similarly, in her ethnographic analysis of Swedish citizens concerned about palm oil deforestation, Isenhour (This issue) questions the market mentality of free choice by critically examining the popular assumption that consumers on the other end of the commodity chain can make optimal choices for conservation. Her case illustrates the limits of market-based conservation programs that place significant confidence in the ability of informed and rational end-consumers to drive a shift to more sustainable production regimes-without governmental intervention. Yet as Isenhour demonstrates, even the most environmentally aware, interested, and engaged consumers face significant barriers as they balance multiple consumption priorities, and find themselves unable to find an optimal solution, a problem commonly observed in studies of real world decision making (e.g. Markman and Medin 2002).

Yet promoters of neoliberal conservation promise that environmental protection is possible, if there is a market for goods like sustainably-sourced palm oil, certified timber or fair trade coffee. But that, of course, raises questions about what happens to local communities and conservation projects when markets don't exist and sustainable consumers don't make the 'rational' choice.

 Conclusion: Conservation Alternatives Beyond the Rational Actor

Some have suggested that the idea of neoliberalism has become hegemonic (Büscher and Dressler 2012), making it more difficult-yet all the more important-to develop alternative, and potentially more effective, institutions for conservation (Arsel and Büscher 2012; Büscher et al. 2012; McAfee 2012). Neoliberal conservation, in its assertion that nature is undervalued and must be given value on the market to ensure protection, undermines consideration of alternative values. As McAfee (2012: 126) argues, global PES markets "ignore culturally-specific meanings and values, unless these can be quantified by credentialed experts, and negates other, potentially quite different values". The conversion of ecological value into monetary terms lends credence to economic discourses and suggests that rationality is not possible outside of the realm of the economy. It becomes, to a certain degree, a self-fulfilling prophecy, as conservationists and local communities come to assume that if they don't act in their own self-interest, others will.

However, as the papers in this special section argue, alternatives to rational actor ideas may provide space to rethink and rework our ideas about nature and conservation, despite the increasing neoliberal focus on individuals, economic value, and markets in conservation. For example, Doane (This issue) and Peterson (This issue) emphasise the coexistence of multiple values in many communities, many of which span social relationships. Peterson writes, "Those in the fishing community do not see their barriers as economic or their futures in terms of profits, but in terms of relationships and the opportunities that might come from these, such as new jobs that might provide a more stable livelihood for themselves or their children". The papers urge a broader, less individualistic view of rationality that embraces the complexity of hybrid individual-communal systems, allowing for a variety of values to be recognised in policy.

Further, in encouraging discussions about conservation to move beyond individualised decision making and responsibility, particularly at the site of resource use or consumption, this special section reminds us that decisions about use or conservation are made on multiple scales, and that the decisions of a fisherman, Swedish consumer or rural farmer are situated in complex webs of global commodity chains, regulatory frameworks, and more localised social institutions. Solutions must address this complexity as well as the differential power and efficacy of actors and institutions across sectors and scales, rather than focusing on just one point or section of this web (Isenhour, This issue).

Neoliberalism's dominance is certainly not absolute; hybrid forms of environmental governance and perspectives on nature can bring multiple sets of values to bear on conservation. This special section is intended to stimulate discussion about the development of alternative policies that might recognise the limits of rationality and individual choice. We argue that if policies continue to be blinded by neoliberalism's rational actor-neglecting alternative values, restrictions on individual choice, and shared responsibility for degradation and appropriate solutions-neoliberal conservation's poor record of performance is unlikely to improve.[35]


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