The tragedy of the commons is not inevitable
People are not always purely self-interested.
The tragedy of the commons is a concept that gets mentioned in debates on social media. It gives an argument some heft, it sounds authoritative when people are arguing for personal responsibility, the privatisation of resources and scaremongering about immigration.
Ecologist Garrett Hardin popularised The Tragedy of the Commons label.
In his 1968 essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, Hardin writes:
”the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
In other words, Hardin is saying that individuals will often use natural resources to their advantage without considering the long-term impact on the community and the resource itself.
“The problem with Hardin’s logic was the very first step: the assumption that communally owned land was a free-for-all. It wasn’t. The commons were owned by a community. They were managed by a community. These people were neighbours. They lived next door to each other. In many cases, they set their own rules and policed those rules.”
Local communities can successfully manage resources sustainably without privatisation. Local communities can work together. People are not always purely self-interested.
Altruism, trust, reputation, and a sense of fairness can play significant roles in how individuals use shared resources.
The tragedy of the commons is not inevitable.
The popularity of the tragedy of the commons idea is in part due to it being a memorable story, that can feel intuitively true, even though it’s not true. In this sense, it’s an example of “thought terminating cliche” / style over substance.
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