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The Tragedy of the Commons

I didn’t know this dilemma until I read ‘Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations’ by Clay Shirky. (I’ll probably do other posts inspired by this book.)

The tragedy described in Wikipedia
"The Tragedy of the Commons" is an influential article written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. The article describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone's long term interest for this to happen.

Central to Hardin's article is a metaphor of herders sharing a common parcel of land (the commons), on which they are all entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin's view, it is in each herder's interest to put as many cows as possible onto the land, even if the commons is damaged as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from the additional cows, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational decision, however, the commons is destroyed and all herders suffer.

This is greed: the self-serving desire for the pursuit of money, wealth, power, food, or other possessions, especially when this denies the same goods to others. (definition from Wikipedia)

Parallel situations……….everywhere
1. The most vivid to me is the current actions of employees who fear they may lose their jobs. Suddenly some civility erupts as we contemplate and even say we will accept no pay raise, perhaps even some lowering of our pay, and take unpaid furloughs to preserve our collective jobs.

We recognize we have a limited shared resource, the money available from our employer. We’re seeing some lessening of the ‘What’s in it for me?’ ‘How much can I get in pay and expenses?’ mentality. I think that’s a very good thing.

(It reminds me of the post title I used last May about a natural disaster, Is a disaster required to produce civility? Perhaps an economic disaster can also produce civility.)

2. And I thought of The Tragedy of the Commons when I read a news article from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension about research on conservation practices by farmers in one watershed. The agricultural economics department report concluded that the role of empathy (walking in the shoes of others) could be helpful in solving environmental quality problems. The earth’s natural resources are often equated to the commons in Hardin’s metaphor. The report is at http://www.agecon.unl.edu/Cornhuskereconomics/2009cornhusker/1-14-09.pdf

I encourage you to contemplate The Tragedy of the Commons. What situations come to mind for you?

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Comments

This is a basic economic concept. A great deal of economics has to do with motivations. You may want to look into behavioral economics for related information. In the URL above Hardin quotes the 1832 discussion on commons by Lloyd. Hardin added tragedy, and made it easier to visualize.

As you can tell, I'm not in any way an expert on economics. (Struggled through Econ 101 and 102 in college.) Perhaps that's why this is interesting to me now.

This also makes me think about the classes I've been teaching the last several weeks on how to write for blogs. Good blog writing has two characteristics: authority and passion. In this case, I really ventured outside any position of authority.

Thanks, Tim.

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