These words, written by Garrett Hardin in 1968, seem to desccribe nicely the situation we are in as far as the use of natural resources is concerned. We all use too much because we are not paying the full price for it – and because we are scared that if we don’t exploit as much as possible, the others will. It’s what Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons”.
We can use wikipedia to better understand what tragedy of the commons means: “The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource.” With other words, if people act rational in a selfish way, they will eventually create a very irrational – and highly negative – outcome for the community.
It is maybe time for an example. Hardin most famously uses the example of grazing lands and pastors which increase their herds up to a point where it is no longer sustainable. We can also use the example of pollution: “Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in — sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air; and distracting and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. The calculations of utility are much the same as before. The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them.” Eventually, since everyone will think the same way, man will find himself on a planet which is highly polluted – pretty much the point at which we are now. Suddenly, the price (health problems, death, environmental degradation, climate change…) is becoming higher and higher – except that it is paid by the community as a whole not by whom actually created it.
The tragedy of the commons is often linked to the prisoner’s dilemma and the free-rider problem. Policy makers and economists alike have been intrigued by these metaphors and often refer to them when trying to explain the foolish way we interact with our environment. From a very different point of view, Elinor Ostrom pointed out in her famous 1990 book “Governing the Commons” how real life actors are not as limited in options as the two prisoners are: “not all users of natural resources are similarly incapable of changing their constraints”. She also blames the economists for portraying people as helpless and without free will: “by referring to natural settings as ‘tragedies of the commons’, ‘collective action problems’, ‘prisoner’s dilemmas’ … the observer frequently wishes to invoke an image of helpless individuals caugh in an inexorable process of destroying their own resources”.
Her book therefore conveys a different picture. It shows how the two main approaches to the tragedy of the commons (state-control or privatization) are very limited in providing a real solution. She proposes that there are many more possible ways of resolving the problem. Let’s elaborate on her example of sports. In sports competitions there are clear rules established normally not by an external entity but from within the sports community itself. Since the rules are not imposed from outside, the have a much higher level of legitimacy within the community and are highly respected. However, there is a prisoner’s dilemma also within sports (under pressure some might tend to use drugs or cheat in another way). Therefore, we can find in many disciplines arbitors or drug-testing bodies which help implementing the rules. A system which to my eyes works rather well which is not using privatization (nobody has to buy the right to play soccer) nor state-control (the state does not care abotu what is a foul).
Elinor Ostrom has collected empirical data, meaning real life cases of communities which have manged to succesfully implement schemes for using their resources sustainably. She also provides examples of failed attempts. A good read for better understanding the tragedy of the commons and the possible way out.
Illustration by Emily Elisabeth Photography, thanks.