Selfish resource exploitation threatens societies and livelihoods. But there could be ways for nations and communities to circumvent narrow self-interest in favor of the common good.
Consider a simple pasture, common land where anyone may let their cattle graze. Any rational, self-interested person wants to increase their livelihood. So each adds to their herd, one more animal at a time, until eventually the common land can’t sustain any more cows. The pasture is overgrazed and all of the cattle die.
This bleak picture, sketched out in an 1833 pamphlet by the British mathematician William Forster Lloyd, remained an obscure snippet of social science until 1968, when ecologist Garrett Hardin picked it up. In his profoundly influential paper, “The tragedy of the commons”, Hardin wrote, “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.”
It has proved to be a powerful idea. To Hardin and others, the same grim logic was behind many of our biggest problems. Common resources, such as fisheries, forests, and even the air are threatened by selfish individuals and nations taking what they can, even though they know the resource will be wiped out if everyone does the same. Hardin’s solution was to cede our freedoms to the state, to be bound by “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”.
This brand of tragedy is particularly urgent today as our population and technology put more and more strain on limited nature.
Read more: http://www.pnas.org/content/114/1/7.long
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