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On the preconditions for large-scale collective action

Journal article
Authors Sverker C. Jagers
Niklas Harring
Åsa Löfgren
Martin Sjöstedt
F. Alpizar
Bengt Brülde
David Langlet
Andreas Nilsson
Bethanie Carney Almroth
Samuel Dupont
W. Steffen
Published in Ambio
Volume 49
Issue 7
Pages 1282–1296
ISSN 0044-7447
Publication year 2020
Published at Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Kristineberg
Department of Law
Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Department of Psychology
Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science
Department of Political Science
Department of Economics
Pages 1282–1296
Language en
Keywords Facilitators, Global commons, Large-scale collective action, Social, dilemmas, Stressors, earth system governance, social dilemmas, group-size, public-goods, planetary boundaries, voluntary provision, climate-change, global, change, cooperation, punishment, Engineering, Environmental Sciences & Ecology
Subject categories Environmental Sciences, Sociology


The phenomenon of collective action and the origin of collective action problems have been extensively and systematically studied in the social sciences. Yet, while we have substantial knowledge about the factors promoting collective action at the local level, we know far less about how these insights travel to large-scale collective action problems. Such problems, however, are at the heart of humanity's most pressing challenges, including climate change, large-scale natural resource depletion, biodiversity loss, nuclear proliferation, antibiotic resistance due to overconsumption of antibiotics, and pollution. In this paper, we suggest an analytical framework that captures the theoretical understanding of preconditions for large-scale collective action. This analytical framework aims at supporting future empirical analyses of how to cope with and overcome larger-scale collective action problems. More specifically, we (i) define and describe the main characteristics of a large-scale collective action problem and (ii) explain why voluntary and, in particular, spontaneous large-scale collective action among individual actors becomes more improbable as the collective action problem becomes larger, thus demanding interventions by an external authority (a third party) for such action to be generated. Based on this, we (iii) outline an analytical framework that illustrates the connection between third-party interventions and large-scale collective action. We conclude by suggesting avenues for future research.

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