The Tragedy of the Commons


World leaders think pollution is not their problem. Little do they know that soon the waste generated by seven billion people will overflow into their private properties.
 
You have been drinking a couple of beers in a spotless, quiet park. A large notice board says: No Littering Please. It is time to go home. You look for a trash bin. No bins on sight. You may have to take the empty cans back home. Can cheating be detected? The park is empty. Throwing the empty cans behind the bushes becomes another possibility. Nobody will see you. Would you do it? Some people will.

What makes people decide to litter? Welcome to the Tragedy of the Commons 1.
The Tragedy of the Commons is a theory that explains how group shared resources can be depleted in the long term by individuals acting according to their short term self-interest. And this is the case despite the fact individuals understand that their actions lead against the group’s best interest. The theory describes the dilemma of medieval herders sharing a common parcel of land. One additional sheep won’t hurt the pasture much; but too many will overgraze it. If the herder decides to increase the number of sheep he owns by one, then in the short term he will receive all of the benefits for the additional sheep. The loss incurred, however little, will be shared by all in the long term. Logically, all herdsmen, reasoning the same way, will add another animal to their own herd seeking short term self-interest. Ultimately, the common pasture, overgrazed by too many sheep, would be spoiled.

Waste management is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. As the group becomes bigger, it is more difficult to manage the trash created by human activity. Most homes, no matter how poor or uneducated the dwellers are, are quite clean. Bigger groups, a town, are messier. The utility of a can of beer is enjoyed by the individual while the loss of littering is born by the group.

At a global scale waste is out of control; greenhouse gas emissions, plastic accumulation in the oceans, toxic waste spilled into rivers, and much more. Water and air pollution in some areas of the world are reaching appalling levels. Pollution is spreading all over since water and air refuse to respect international border regulations – or private property walls for that matter. The world leaders’ sheep are, as they see it, grazing in their private meadows and safe from the tragedy of the commons. They seem to think pollution is not their problem. Little do they know that soon the waste generated by seven billion people will overflow into their private properties. By then, the elite will finally know how it feels to be in deep shit like a commoner.

(1)    This theory was published by Garret Hardin in 1968.
 
 



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