Green 101: Intro to Sustainability Week 3 – Tragedy of the Commons

This past week was all about “Tragedy of the Commons,” which is  defined by Wikipedia as: “A dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. This dilemma was described in an influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”, written by ecologist Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.”

The example used by Hardin was a public-use field that was improperly managed and had become overgrazed by cattle. In his view, it is human nature to get as much as we can out of a common resource, with no regard to the long-term effects or the effects on the community/world as a whole. This inevitably causes an irreversible degradation of that shared resource. Many authorities chose to interpret this theory as suggesting that the only solution would be to privatize the resource, which has proven to be effective in the case of fisheries world-wide. Hardin has since clarified that “A ‘managed commons’ describes either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise. Either one may work; either one may fail.”

Not everyone is so doom-and-gloom. In this article, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elinor Ostrom talks about how humans can (and do) self-organize and solve problems. Communication and a well-defined, common goal is key, but her research has concluded that it’s usually the people using that resource who are best able to come up with a solution, without any outside authority intervening. Her examples seem to focus mostly on the local level, but there are definitely ways cooperation can be translated to national and international problems as well! As Ostrom says, “there are no panaceas,” meaning, the same solution can’t be used every time – each issue has to be examined and worked out in a custom way. Sure, it’s extra work, but there’s nothing more beautiful than true community in action!

Naturally the community-based focus of this week got me all fired up! And despite what I said last week, I did wander back into the forums again…

I started a thread asking whether communes/ecovillages are the solution for limiting resource use. One commenter mentioned that communes and ecovillages shouldn’t be viewed in the same category, mostly because ecovillages usually have the option of private living spaces (with shared utilities) while still offering the sense of community that people who move in are looking for! Reminds me of the successful examples that got me interested in communal living in the first place: Scottish-born Ariane Burgess, a guest teacher during my Permaculture course, discussed the Findhorn Ecovillage, which has received Best Practice designation from the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat). And Diana Leafe Christian, at a lecture I attended on intentional communities, spoke about Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, where she lives and works.

I’m aware that shared resources are only one small part of the puzzle, but could they be used as teaching tools for larger, world-wide issues? Another thread on the forums suggested that a dirty kitchen shared by college roommates was a perfect opportunity to learn how an individual mess can add up to a communal problem, and how to work together to solve the problem. I thought this was a hilarious, and very realistic, example. Of course, shared bathrooms and kitchens are nothing compared to the majorly important communal areas on earth: Fisheries, Waterways, Atmosphere/Pollution, Climate. The big question is, how do we make solutions to these larger problems more accessible to average people? A messy kitchen is immediate and visceral; the ice caps melting in the Arctic are unfortunately too physically far removed and too loosely connected to everyday life for many to spend much time thinking about…

Photo from The Canyon Country Zephyr blog


3 thoughts on “Green 101: Intro to Sustainability Week 3 – Tragedy of the Commons

  1. Thanks…………..lots of food for thought. And I’m glad you’re not giving up on the forums because of a few nasty self-centered people. It’s important to toss around ideas!

  2. Agreed! I can’t help but laugh at people like that. One of the (repeat) offenders was sniveling that the forums were nothing but “a mutual admiration society.” Meaning he didn’t approve when others agreed with each other, but was miffed that no one agreed with him. Talk about having your head in the sand…or elsewhere for that matter!

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