Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Tragedy of the Commons

In 1968 (just before I was born) Garrett Hardin published an article in the journal Science called "The Tragedy of the Commons" [Vol. 162, No. 3859 (December 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248].

It is a metaphorical--and sometimes literal--illustration of how groups of humans behave, specifically when individuals are using a shared resource. It is a wonderful example of an academic area studied in the field of social psychology. But the ideas have been studied in other fields such as political science and economics.

In the metaphor, "the commons" could refer to a common pasture or field in a town of farmers. Each farmer would be entitled to use the pasture to feed his cows. With this system, each individual farmer will immediately profit most by allowing his cows to graze on the pasture for as long as possible. But, if each farmer does this, the pasture will quickly become overgrazed, and everyone loses. The question is, how long does it take between the time when individuals are "winning" and the time when everyone is "losing"?

Of course, the world has many examples of this situation. Pollution of all sorts is like this.

Proposed solutions to this problem have included the idea of privatizing everything (i.e. to eliminate any "commons"). The trouble is, part of the tragedy of the commons lies in an individual profiteer having a short-term motive. "Short-term" in an ecological sense could sometimes be considered to be 50-100 years. The profiteer may maximize his wealth by relentlessly exploiting a natural resource, whether he owns the resource privately or not. During his lifetime, there may not actually be overt negatives to this practice. But over several generations, this practice will destroy the environment.

So, privatization is not a rational solution (besides, carrying privatization to an extreme would yield such absurdities as individual private ownership of the atmosphere or the sky, etc.).

Shared resources must be managed. The management must be from a point of view of the community as a whole (hence it must be communal or governmental), and not only that -- the management must be from a point of view which encompasses the distant future as well as the present. So we must have a government, and a set of values, which makes substantial consideration for what happens even after every currently living person on the earth has died -- i.e. we must consider future generations of life.

I wonder if the common religious stories regarding the notion of an "afterlife" may touch metaphorically upon the importance of literally considering what comes after our own lives. In this practical case, though, we are considering our currently living role in caring for the lives of those who are yet to be born. We may exact such care by protecting "the commons." We may consider this a sacred act.

Such a perspective goes beyond what the mind has been evolutionarily programmed to do -- yet such a highly cultured perspective is what we are called to espouse, if we are to save ourselves, and to save "the commons." The most obvious example of such need is, once again, relating to pollution (of which the "global warming" issue is one of many facets).

The human mind has an innate difficulty with sharing, and it requires culture and a legal structure around the human individual's drives and yearnings, in order to prevent "the tragedy of the commons" from playing itself out.

In a modern society which allows a high degree of individual freedom, and highly advanced, unique forms of living out this freedom (e.g. the internet, telecommunications, rapid and convenient transportation almost anywhere in the world), we may be serving and developing those parts of our mind -- those parts we have evolved over millions of years -- which are most apt to "deplete the commons".

The parts we must strive to attend to are those which require us to use our intelligence, empathy, and imagination, in the process of learning how to share.

I think the modern conservation movements are just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of people making more deliberate, conscious, inspired efforts to protect the present and future environment. These efforts will not only literally protect the earth -- but they will protect our minds. The practice of empathy, and of sharing, of planning to protect something we will not even be around to see -- these are the crowning qualities of human culture, made possible by the human brain, but often thwarted by inherited aspects of the carniverous greed which our species required to survive for millions of years.

It is interesting that many dreams about fear, terror, and death feature wild creatures such as wolves. The wolf is an apt symptol for such frightening emotions--wolves and humans co-existed in a wild state prior to the development of a modern moral culture. In those prehistoric days, there might not have been much room for empathy and sharing in an average
human "household." Since that time, humans have befriended and domesticated wolves, (some of them at least) such that we have a type of wolf we keep in our homes, which we call a"dog." Perhaps to some degree me may remember in our dreams that dogs, or wolves, have been symbols of the terrors of the wild, of a simple but cruel kill-or-be-killed existence.

Our mind reverts to such "wild" states easily--after all, hundreds of thousands of generations of humans evolved under such wild conditions, and those traits in our minds have a strong genetic background. It is like a long war, which is finally over. We don't have to be wild anymore. It is no longer necessary--at least no longer in the peaceful parts of our world--to devour prey; to hunt; to kill our enemies before they kill us; to prepare for a panicked escape in the event of possible attack, etc.

In fact, as the tragedy of the commons metaphor illustrates, it is necessary to set aside aspects of our genetically programmed heritage, to over-ride this with a learned culture of love, sharing, and compassion, with the leadership offered in the culture (e.g. in the form of government or law) to ensure that moral excellence is favoured.

From a psychiatric point of view, I remind you that your mind is partially "wild", it strives for immediate safety, satiation, or relief. You may need to over-ride the wildness, using your intelligence, imagination, and culture (derived both from within yourself and from your community), in order to protect, or "conserve" your mind -- to protect your future mind from the wild emotional instability that may be seething in the present. Cognitive-behavioural therapy is a concrete example of this kind of idea. But more subtle -- and possibly more powerful -- examples include all imaginative, intelligent acts that are rooted in compassion, altruism, generosity, and protectiveness towards self & others.

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