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Reluctant Collectivism?

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By Neil McRoberts - Posted on 14 July 2011

This is a cross-posting from the Cubelab blog at UC Davis (http://sites.google.com/site/cubelabsite/home/cube-lab-blog)

A couple of years ago purely by chance I picked up a second hand copy of "Social Limits to Growth" by the late Sir Fred Hirsch in a charity shop (= goodwill store). Hirsch wrote the book in the early 1970's (it was published in 1976 and Hirsch died two years later at the tragically young age of 46) and, as far as I can tell, it hasn't been widely cited by subsequent economists. Hirsch attempted to analyze a set of three connected problems which, as he saw it, laid bare the mostly unspoken (but widely felt) notion that economic growth did not deliver the happiness it promised (see footnote). The last of the three problems was what Hirsch called the reluctant collectivism; the almost grudging acceptance that individual actions cannot always achieve what is best for all individuals together.

What does this have to do with plant disease epidemiology?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. One of the drivers which brings people to accept that they have to work together, even if it appears there is an immediate personal cost in doing so, are problems which have public, as well as private, aspects. That is, problems for which my actions (or inaction) affect not only me but also other people, and my welfare depends, similarly, not only on my choices but on the choices other people make. Under these conditions everyone just doing what they see as best for themselves in the short term tends to result in nobody getting what they want, particularly when individual desires are incompatible. Plant diseases, particularly ones which spread over large areas, are obvious examples of problems which have both public and private costs. Strangely, though, the role of individual vs. collective action hasn't been much studied in relation to plant disease control. Perhaps one reason for this is that most of the time most growers have similar goals to reduce disease, and hence their private goals combine to achieve an acceptable pubic result. So what happens when growers disagree about whether a disease is worth controlling or not? This is exactly the question which we are examining in our research on grapevine leafroll disease.

We already know that a range of attitudes towards the disease exist among grape growers and winemakers; everything from belief that leafroll infected vines make the best wine, to complete intolerance for any leafroll infected vines in a vineyard. A number of growers are already seeking collective approaches to manage the disease, recognizing that a problem that can spread among neighbors requires a neighborly approach if it is going to be solved efficiently, others remain reluctant to commit to collective action. The first stage of our research is aimed at understanding these different attitudes and getting an estimate of their distribution over the population of growers. We're currently sifting text responses to a set of 9 open-ended questions that we posed to growers and winemakers in three workshops. These responses will form the basis of Q-method study with a second round of volunteers from the industry who will be interviewed by Kari Arnold. Together with Mark Lubell, I'll be investigating some more generic aspects of the collective action problem in plant disease management and looking for lessons that can be learned from other domains where the subject has been studied for longer.

Footnote: This raises, indirectly, a thorny question about the ultimate value of science aimed at increasing material wealth when such increases only lead to increased pressure for consumption of the sorts of goods and services whose supply cannot be increased, and hence to increased unhappiness. It's an interesting question, but the answer (if I ever get to one) will have to wait for another posting.