Persimmons and Transition: Why Appalachian Transition is a Collective Action Problem

There’s an old Appalachian folk tale about a turtle and a gamecock. The gamecock, bruised and weary from his victory over a blue ribbon cock two counties over, stumbles across a turtle washed up on the riverbank. Starved as those on the shores of the Galilee, the turtle asks of the gamecock, “Say, gamecock, wouldn’t happen to know of any food nearby, would ye?”

Letting hunger speak for him, the gamecock tells the turtle of a persimmon tree that rests on a bank across the river.

“Down river, huh?” The turtle lets each syllable have its day. “I tell ye what. Be my guide and I will carry ye on my back to this tree. I know nothing of the persimmons but can easily swim the river. Ye’ve got the whereabouts of the tree but have not the strength to fly the river.” In older age the cock had amassed too much drag in the form of Krispy Kreme donuts and Creatine to get higher than a few feet off the ground. “Once ye guide me, ye can ascend the tree and snatch enough fruit from its branches for the both of us.”

It’s been ages since the gamecock has tasted persimmons, but he is suspicious of the terrapin’s offer. What if the turtle opts mid-route that the prize isn’t worth it and takes a dive, leaving the cock to the fury of the rapids?

The gamecock’s hesitation causes the turtle to grow wary of the likely-roid-raged fowl. What if the cock leads him astray? Or the tree doesn’t even exist? It’s $2 pint night and the turtle doesn’t want to miss the Alabama Shakes show for nothing.

Just as each of them concludes that they can’t trust the other to hold up their part in the scheme, the town elder turns the bend. Finding the turtle and gamecock in a pickle, the bear, who’d amassed more community trust than a dozen church mice, offers his advice,

“Y’all may’ve only met, but I’ve known each of ye since God spat ye out, and I can vouch for each’s character to the other. So, take an oath of partnership in yer quest for Appalachian persimmon, and let me bear witness. Then ye can each be sure that yer effort in pursuit of persimmons won’t be for naught, for ye can trust the other will play his role.”

Unable to find any holes in the scheme, the turtle and gamecock take a vow of partnership by the bear’s witness, traverse the river, ascend the tree, and jointly relish in their spoils.

There are a host of things that will determine the transition of the Appalachian economy, but there is perhaps one variable that will inform the success of transition efforts above all else: coalition building. We know that formal partnerships are necessary, but do we know why? Why wouldn’t transition efforts pursued in isolation be successful?

The pursuit of a new Appalachian economy can be perhaps best understood as a collective action problem. Many organizations striving to alter the economy have, more or less, a common goal: a just and sustainable economy that works for the people of the region. Actors throughout the mountains have converged on this common interest. And yet, the sheer fact that people share an interest in transition does not prove its eventual success. We must figure out how to traverse the gap between signifying interest and taking action. This next step is set squarely in a collective action problem.

The textbook definition of a collective action problem is a scenario in which “multiple individuals [desire a common goal], but [taking action for the goal] has an associated [disincentive] making it implausible that any one individual can or will undertake and solve it alone.”

The turtle and the gamecock share a common goal: persimmons. (See what I did there) And each needs the efforts of the other if either of them is to enjoy the prize. Yet, each stands to bear a cost if he commits to the scheme and the other ditches. Because of a lack of trust, neither the turtle nor gamecock are willing to pursue the persimmons, despite it being something they both desire. The turtle and the gamecock are in a collective action problem.

Now let’s consider a current example that I think illustrates how transition is a collective action problem.

Researchers have identified massive potential for jobs in renewable energy in the region doing solar, wind, and biomass work. Perhaps the largest barrier to starting a renewable energy business in the region is the fear that the skilled labor required for the industry isn’t available. Former miners and others could handle such work but would require retraining programs oriented towards these specific industries. It’s also been historically difficult to keep skilled labor in the hollers of Appalachia, so more housing, entertainment, and living options will need to be considered to keep this robust workforce from migrating outside the region. Public support in the form of favorable policies and public investment would also be required from state and local governments if renewable energy firms are to grow in the region.

What this shows us is that creating jobs in clean energy requires multiple actors. The efforts of entrepreneurs are futile if the workforce isn’t there. Community colleges have a disincentive to establishing retraining programs if no firms exist to hire retrained miners. So while all parties are interested in creating these jobs, not knowing whether the other pieces of the puzzle will be there or not is a disincentive to taking action in the first place. The creation of a clean energy economy is caught in a collective action problem.

 

 

Figures 1 and 2, which vary slightly from the classic prisoner’s dilemma, are decision models that map the payoffs associated with various scenarios. They use game theory to model decisions. Figure 1 maps the decision scenarios confronting the turtle and gamecock in the persimmon tale. Figure 2 presents the decision scenarios before the entrepreneur and community college in their pursuit of a clean energy economy. A payoff is a numerical ranking assigned to a scenario by an actor according to his/her preferences. A single scenario (set of numbers) will have two different payoffs (numerical values) because there are two actors in each of these models. Each set of numbers (x,y) represents a scenario, where x is the payoff for the (x) actor and y is the payoff for the (y) actor. Because there are four scenarios in each of these hypothetical models, a payoff is an actor’s preference ranking of a given scenario 1-4, where 4 is most preferred. For example, the bottom right box in figure 1 represents the scenario where the turtle doesn’t transport the gamecock and the gamecock doesn’t guide the turtle. (3,3) represent the payoffs for the gamecock and turtle—both the turtle and gamecock prefer this scenario second-most (a value of 3) relative to the other three scenarios. The ~ symbol denotes a negative or not (i.e. “Don’t Transport gamecock”).

Figures 1 and 2, which vary slightly from the classic prisoner’s dilemma, are decision models that map the payoffs associated with various scenarios. They use game theory to model decisions. Figure 1 maps the decision scenarios confronting the turtle and gamecock in the persimmon tale. Figure 2 presents the decision scenarios before the entrepreneur and community college in their pursuit of a clean energy economy. A payoff is a numerical ranking assigned to a scenario by an actor according to his/her preferences. A single scenario (set of numbers) will have two different payoffs (numerical values) because there are two actors in each of these models. Each set of numbers (x,y) represents a scenario, where x is the payoff for the (x) actor and y is the payoff for the (y) actor. Because there are four scenarios in each of these hypothetical models, a payoff is an actor’s preference ranking of a given scenario 1-4, where 4 is most preferred. For example, the bottom right box in figure 1 represents the scenario where the turtle doesn’t transport the gamecock and the gamecock doesn’t guide the turtle. (3,3) represent the payoffs for the gamecock and turtle—both the turtle and gamecock prefer this scenario second-most (a value of 3) relative to the other three scenarios. The ~ symbol denotes a negative or not (i.e. “Don’t Transport gamecock”).

Each of these models illustrates that, given the interests of the actors, the scenario in the top left (4,4) is most preferred for everyone. In figure 2, the top left box represents transition. Like the tale of the turtle and the gamecock, the problem is getting to transition. If the college opts to create a program, then the entrepreneur prefers to start a business (4>1). But if the college doesn’t opt to create a program, then the entrepreneur prefers not to start a business (3>2) because she’ll have no workforce. And so we get to the core of the issue: the entrepreneur can’t be sure what the college will do, so she doesn’t take the risk of starting a business at all.

The only way out of such a collective action problem is with a mechanism of coordination. The mechanism in the persimmon tale is the bear: a third party that is able to engender enough trust between the gamecock and the turtle for them to coordinate.

The same solution is needed in the case of Appalachian transition: coalitions must be constructed so that actors know they can credibly depend on the efforts of the other actors. Local clean energy coalitions—with representatives from colleges, local governments, entrepreneurs, labor, etc.—must be formed, and they will be most effective if convened by a third party that all the folks at the table trust.

Philosophers and political economists have found, though, that collective action problems become maddeningly more difficult—sometimes seemingly impossible—to organize and solve when the group is larger than a handful of actors. As we well know, Appalachian transition is a massive project involving hundreds of organizations. The key to solving this collective action problem then, will consist in breaking up transition into bite-size problems. Once we are able to hatchet up the efforts around specific, localized issues that require only a small set of actors to address, then developing a coalition and thus solving each smaller collective action problem becomes much easier.

Last month, I toured a number of communities in the region—spanning from North Carolina to Ohio—who are implementing transition projects to varying degrees of success. Unsurprisingly, a defining characteristic of the projects gaining the most ground is the drive of a formal coalition formed around a particular community issue(s).

Of course, there is the concern that some issues are of such nature that addressing them via coalitions isn’t really feasible. These are the sorts of classic collective action problems that only a third party as legitimate as the state can adequately address because only the state is powerful enough to ensure enforcement (i.e. air quality and climate change fall into this category). These are collective action problems facing society that require legal solutions. Though altering the law will require a myriad of tactics, small-scale coalitions built around local issues will undoubtedly play a role in campaigning to achieve legislative victories. So, the coalitions we build to solve community issues can also lay the infrastructure for campaigns seeking the legal changes necessary to solve society-wide collective action problems.

Either way you look at it, our friend the bear has to play a central role in Appalachian transition: coordinated efforts around a common goal—like coalition building—are the only way Appalachians will ever taste those sweet persimmons.

- Eric Dixon