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Social-Ecological Systems Meta-Analysis Database: Theory

Gilded traps

Variable relationship:

This theory was introduced by Steneck et al. (2011) in their description of the well-known case of Maine lobtser fisheries, in which they stated:

"The gilded-trap concept builds on a substantial body of literature on social traps (Hardin 1968; Platt 1973; Costanza 1987). Social traps exist where individuals or societies “get started in some direction or some set of relationships that later prove to be unpleasant or lethal, and that they see no easy way to back out or to avoid” (Platt 1973). Much has been written about 'poverty traps' in linked social and ecological systems, in which collective actions, driven by lack of economic alternatives, often liquidate natural resources (Bowles et al. 2006; Cinner 2010; Cinner et al. 2010). We provide an example of the other end of this social-ecological spectrum in which the perceived lucrative value of a natural resource drives stakeholders and managers to overlook risks of its unexpected decline and the associated negative social and ecological consequences."

The gilded trip narrative begins with a declining biodiversity in the target ecosystem (Biodiversity Trend), which is in fact accompanied by an increasing in abundance (Commons Scarcity) in a particular resource unit within this ecosystem. In response to this increase in abundance and the high market value of the unit (Resource Market Value), resource users take on debt (Actor Debt) in order to invest in the capital needed to extract additional amounts of this resource. This additional capital frequently builds excessive expropration capacity (Over-capitalization). Meanwhile, the decline in biodiversity and emphasis on one resource unit limits the number of alternatives available to the users (Commons Alternatives), which in turn raises their dependence on this resource unit (Economic Dependence), lowers their ability to adapt to changes that may disturb the system and alter the availability of the primary resource unit (Actor Adaptive Capacity). The final result and main reason for concern is that these processes culminate in a decline in the condition of the commons, an event to which the resource user groups are highly vulnerable (Actor Vulnerability).

While Steneck et al. (2011) are referring to a specific case, they do mention that the details of the theory are applicable to industrial agriculture and aquaculture as well, which share these same essential features.

Scientific Field
Component Type(s)
Natural Resource Unit, Natural Resource System


VariableRoleRole ExplanationValue
Commons scarcityUnderlying independent variableScarcity with respect to the appropriated resource units increases, which draws the commons users into a pattern of high reliance on this unit.Low -- abundant
Resource market valueUnderlying independent variableHigh market value of the resource unit encourages capitalization and adaptation of the social system tofurther extract this resource.High
Biodiversity trendUnderlying independent variableThe heightened abundance of the natural resource is associated in this case with an overall decline in biodiversity of the larger ecosystem.Worsened
Over-capitalizationProximate independent variablePart of the vulnerability of the ecosystem results from extensive over-capitalization on the part of the commons users as they increasingly rely on the natural resource that this capital makes available.Yes
Actor debtProximate independent variableAs a result of the high level of capitalization involved in appropriating the commons, the commons user group over-leverages its assets and incurs a high level of debt. This debt makes it difficult to for the actor group to change its behavior, regardless of how the commons behaves in the future.High
Commons alternativesProximate independent variableThe decline in biodiversity in the native ecosystem reduces the availability of alternative resources that could be appropriated by the commons users.Can access other alternatives with some difficulty
Ecological resilienceIntermediate outcomeAs a result of the low biodiversity associated with the management regime, the overall ecosystem is vulnerable to disturbances such as pathogens.Poorly resilient
Actor adaptive capacityIntermediate outcomeA lack of alternatives, high resource dependence, and high sunk costs lower the ability of the commons users to adapt away from the path the system has set itself on.Low
Economic dependenceIntermediate outcomeAn exclusive focus on one resource unit increases the economic dependence of the commons users on this particular unit.Very dependent
Commons condition trendFinal outcomeLow ecological resilience will eventually lead to a decline in the condition of the commons when it it exposed to a disturbance it cannot respond to.Worsened
Actor vulnerabilityFinal outcomeAs a result of their low adaptive capacity and the vulnerability of the ecological system to disturbances, the commons users are highly vulnerable to social and ecological disturbances.High

Related Theories

TheoryRelationshipCharacterizing Variables
Bans and perverse incentivesrelated
Market-driven resource declinerelated

Related Studies


Steneck, R S, T P Hughes, J E Cinner, W N Adger, S N Arnold, F Berkes, S A Boudreau, K Brown, Carl Folke, and L Gunderson. 2011. “Creation of a Gilded Trap by the High Economic Value of the Maine Lobster Fishery.” Conservation Biology 25 (5): 904–912.