Elinor Ostrom, Societal Organisation And The God Threshold


Elinor Ostrom gained the Nobel Prize in large part for explaining that there’s a method of societal organisation that isn’t markets and property rights as in capitalism and also isn’t regulation and control, as in a bureaucratic society. This finding of something called the God Threshold is working along the same lines.

So, Ostrom’s point. Garrett Hardin told us about the Tragedy of the Commons. If we’ve open, Marxist, access to a resource then fine. But if demand for the resource exceeds regenerative supply then that resource will become exhausted. For we’ve already said that, with open access, anyone who wants some can come and take it. Thus, in order for a resource to survive access must be limited. We can do this in one of two ways. We can parcel out private property, the capitalist – in Hardin’s description – way or we can have a bureaucracy, regulation, which limits access – the socialist way.

Ostrom pointed out that there’s a third way. For such resources do exist, demand is greater than supply, and yet they persist without either. That is, we can have self-regulating access to the resource among those concerned.

OK, excellent. But Ostrom’s system fails at groups larger than perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 people. So, we’re fine with say the limitation of access to a grazing commons – the steppes have been so regulated, interspersed with more than a little warfare, for millennia now. But climate change can’t be handled that way given how 7 billion of us contribute to the problem.

OK. At which point we get this:

The God threshold: why societies don’t need a moral deity until they hit one million Human societies hit a ‘God threshold’ at around one million people where they need a moralising, rule-making deity to keep order, a new study suggests. Previously it was thought that the expansion of complex societies went hand-in-hand with controlling religions, which installed principles of right and wrong and allowed large numbers to live together peacefully. But a new study by Oxford University and Keio University in Japan, found that only ‘megasocieties’ of more than one million require the kind of unyielding cohesive beliefs that gave rise to major religions like Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Buddhism.

The similarity is, of course, that certain ways of regulating a human society work up to a certain size of that human society. Above that methods need to change. We prove this the same way Ostrom did too. Those societies that didn’t develop such a management system didn’t survive, those that did are with us still.

Of course, this won’t aid nor please those who really believe, that it’s all only a management system, not a revelation, but then reality isn’t there to please us, is it?

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