29 December 2009

Tragedy of the Commons (No More)

Garrett Hardin introduced the concept of Tragedy of the Commons 40 years ago, but it is more relevant now than ever in light of the multiple challenges faced in the recent climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.

"Fishing is a classic example of a tragedy of the commons problem. The fish are a common resource, so [from a business perspective] it makes sense to catch as many fish as you can. If you don't, someone else will. As a result, we run out of fish. Everyone makes a rational decision but in the end we all lose."1

Viewed from an economic perspective, "the individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers."2  Of course, the benefits gained by the individual are bittersweet as they lead to problems for the broader community from which that same individual cannot escape.

"Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase [his activity] 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."3

The problems caused by current climate are widely regarded to be among the hardest the world has ever had to confront in large part because they aren’t confined to a place that can be fenced off, nor can they be treated as a regional problem to be solved by a handful of nations.  Nor is there a clear technical solution that can be addressed by the natural sciences. Rather, the issue is so complex because it requires a complete rethinking of the two major concepts central to all tragedy of the commons situations: freedom and public administration. 


Collective temperance, especially if it is mutually agreed upon by the majority of people, has long been considered necessary to generate harmony in society. Temperance comes from understanding a problem and its consequences and voluntarily restraining from an action that may give benefits to the individual, but will harm the collectivity. So, raising consciousness that restricting one’s own freedom will lead to collective well-being seems to be one of the solutions to the tragedy of the commons. 

Mr. Hardin argues, however, that this apparent solution will never work.  Elaborating on the “Pathogenic Effects of Conscience”, he argues that “appealing to conscious creates a double-bind because people are asked to behave in a way that benefits the collective whole, but condemns them as simpletons who lose out while everybody else ignores their conscious and exploits the use of the commons.”4  In other words, if others are over-fishing or polluting, then why shouldn’t I?

“We are locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest,’ so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers."5

Mr. Hardin was right to claim that people will not change their behavior through simple appeals to their conscious.  However, what Mr. Hardin did not comprehend is that people will change their behavior once they see how mutualism characterizes the relationship between the individual and the collectivity. In this light, the only benefit for the individual is that which provides maximum benefit for the collectivity. 

The philosophical foundation of this concept does not come from any political, economic or technical strand of thought.  Rather it originates in a deceptively simple phrase:
"O people of the world, ye are all the fruit of one tree and the leaves of one branch. Walk with perfect charity, concord, affection, and agreement.”6
Implications of this statement are profound:

The bedrock of a strategy that can engage the world's population in assuming responsibility for its collective destiny must be the consciousness of the oneness of humankind. … In a letter addressed to Queen Victoria over a century ago, and employing an analogy that points to the one model holding convincing promise for the organization of a planetary society, Bahá'u'lláh compared the world to the human body. There is, indeed, no other model in phenomenal existence to which we can reasonably look. Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals, each one of whom is endowed with intelligence and will; nevertheless, the modes of operation that characterize man's biological nature illustrate fundamental principles of existence. Chief among these is that of unity in diversity. Paradoxically, it is precisely the wholeness and complexity of the order constituting the human body -- and the perfect integration into it of the body's cells -- that permit the full realization of the distinctive capacities inherent in each of these component elements. No cell lives apart from the body, whether in contributing to its functioning or in deriving its share from the well-being of the whole. The physical well-being thus achieved finds its purpose in making possible the expression of human consciousness; that is to say, the purpose of biological development transcends the mere existence of the body and its parts.7

Human consciousness can only be expressed as a result of collective social harmony, not through empty appeals to a higher good. Freedom for a cell in a healthy human body has quite a different meaning than it does for somebody who considers overfishing or polluting rational behavior.  Freedom in a commons provides benefits for a collectivity working only within this context.

Public Administration

Because appeals to individual conscious aimed at changing people’s behavior have largely failed due to the lack of a proper philosophical foundation, it has been widely assumed that “the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated.”8 Although this may be true in principal within nations able to legislate and enforce rule of law, it has proven false when dealing with climate change and other global issues basically because no effective form of international governance is in place.

Relative failure at the Copenhagen negotiations will directly lead to intolerable human suffering for far too many of the world’s citizens.  The fact that the present structure of international law is incapable of preventing such suffering is proof sufficient of its obsoleteness.  The current international political structure represents “but a passing phase in the process of human evolution -- a social evolution ‘that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations.’" Increasingly frequent attempts at tackling global issues have caused a partial elimination of the national sovereignty of States and “accordingly, humankind appears to be moving towards the establishment of a world commonwealth consisting of: (a) a true world legislature; (b) a binding world tribunal; (c) an effective world executive.”9

Humankind is at present living at a special time -- a time of the incubation of a world commonwealth that has as its main purpose the safeguarding of the well-being of all humankind. Such a world commonwealth represents the next step in the evolution of civilization in general, and of international law in particular.10

“The formation of a future commonwealth will, first of all, require a profound consciousness of the indisputable interdependence of all the nations of the world and the oneness of humankind. Subsequently, a strong, universal animus will be required to act upon this consciousness in order to bring humanity to its next evolutionary stage.”11 The struggle to prevent further global warming, and mitigate its current effects provide a golden opportunity to deepen our understanding of the oneness of humankind and activate this universal animus.

The principle of the oneness of humankind calls for no less than the reconstruction ... of the whole civilized world and the recognition of the concept of world citizenship. This pivotal principle does not, however, ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnic origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world ... Its watchword is unity in diversity.12


“Because the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, the transformation now required [to properly deal with global issues] must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. It is in the opportunities afforded by this twofold process of change that a strategy of global development will find its purpose. At this crucial stage of history, that purpose must be to establish enduring foundations on which planetary civilization can gradually take shape.”13

"Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organization in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. 'The well-being of mankind,' Bahá'u'lláh writes, 'its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.'"14

In this way, freedom in a commons does not have to bring ruin to all.  In fact, properly exercising freedom as would a cell within a healthy body, for a commons that is administered as patrimony of the entire human race, should prevent further tragedy from taking place.
1. NPR story "Climate Change is Victim of 'Tragedy of the Commons'
2. The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Abdu'l-Baha, A Traveller's Narrative, p. 42, quoting Baha'u'llah
7. Baha'i International Community, 1995 Mar 03, The Prosperity of Humankind
8. The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin
9. Baha'i International Community, 1990 Feb 27, Protection of Minorities

10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Baha'i International Community, 1995 Mar 03, The Prosperity of Humankind
14. Ibid.

1 comment:

Jordan said...

Wow! This is such a great article Justin. Not only did it give me a better understanding of the "Tragedy of the Commons" but also presented a logical and spiritually solution to the current problem of Climate Change. While I was reading it a bunch of questions came to mind.

A couple were, this idea of freedom which I thought was represented perfectly and symbolically by the cells working in a healthy human body. How can that be explained in a way that will reach people who believe that the concept of "freedom" is only found in the animal kingdom? In a society which is increasingly more and more opposed to government and its institutions, how can the idea of being free as a way of working together, distinctly and harmoniously, under one world legislation, be heard?

I was reading a bit more about the Copenhagen deal and its obvious that the people in power can not represent the majority while at the same time trying to come out ahead. No one is willing to sacrifice when money and political agendas hold a higher importance than human lives. The worst outcome is the feeling of powerlessness and the accepted idea that the world is governed only by a few. So what can the people do about it but wait and see? There is an article on the BBC which tries to animate it's readers in engaging more in the political system and going out to more rallies, writing more letters, etc, but there is hardly any encouragement in building a better relationship with nature, the community, and your surroundings by understanding the importance of that watch word "unity in diversity". This watchword needs to be applied first and foremost to our family lives which define our relationship with the individual and the society. These failed attempts at solving the problems that affect all of us will hopefully encourage more solutions that start with ourselves, with our family, and with the communities that surround us.

An interesting podcast about climate change can be found under: APM Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippet "The Moral Math of Climate Change".

Thanks for all the thoughts!