As I reflected on various crises faced by humans these days, whether it’s the global financial crisis or climate change, I was reminded of an article published in Science in 1968 by biologist, Garrett Hardin. The article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” aptly describes the underlying reason why we face these crises. The key point of the article is straightforward: when people act in their own self interest to maximize benefits that accrue to them, shared resources are destroyed, even when one’s long-term interests are compromised as a result of short-term decisions to maximize individual gain.
Hardin uses a metaphor of herders who share a common area for grazing. The tragedy occurs when each individual herder attempts to maximize his gain by putting as many cows as he can into the common area to graze. When each herder takes such action, the commons are damaged or destroyed and all of the herders suffer.
If we apply Hardin’s argument to the global financial meltdown or the meltdown of our glaciers, we can see that individuals, organizations and countries have engaged in practices that in the short-term, maximize gain to them. What worries me is that such short-term thinking will lead to a tragedy of the commons and to much human suffering and loss of opportunity. It also makes me wonder whether our leaders have the foresight and gumption to help us invest in the commons rather than deplete the commons to the point that it is no longer viable.
Stated simply, we could travel down a path leading to a Tragedy of the Commons or we could take a seemingly more circuitous route down an alley called the Prosperity of the Commons. The tragedy path brings with it short-term feelings of happiness (perhaps like a cocaine-high). The prosperity route comes with much pain and sacrifice but will ultimately bring benefits that are nearly impossible to see in the short-term.
The choice is ours.