Economic inequality and burden-sharing in the provision of local environmental quality
A large, but inconclusive, literature addresses how economic heterogeneity affects the use of local resources and local environmental quality. One line of thought, which derives from Nash equilibrium provision of public goods, suggests that in contexts in which individual actions degrade local environmental quality, wealthier people in a community will tend to do more to protect environmental quality. In this paper we report on experiments performed in rural Colombia that were designed to explore the role that economic inequality plays in the 'provision' of local environmental quality. Subjects were asked to decide how much time to devote to collecting firewood from a local forest, which degrades local water quality, and how much to unrelated pursuits. Economic heterogeneity was introduced by varying the private returns to these alternative pursuits. Consistent with the Nash equilibrium prediction, we found that the players with more valuable alternative options put less pressure on local water quality. However, the subjects with less valuable alternative options showed significantly more restraint relative to their pure Nash strategies. Furthermore, they were willing to bear significantly greater opportunity costs to move their groups to outcomes that yielded higher average payoffs and better water quality than the Nash equilibrium outcome.
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