Rethinking the Tragedy of the Commons: Revisiting the Dilemma of Global Climate Crisis

In the field economics and ecological studies, there is a remarkably influential parable that illustrates how humanity is bound to face demise due to innate and inflated selfishness. The setting of this story is a shared grassy pasture named the Commons. The villagers’ main livelihood is the grazing of their cows in this field. Since it is a finite space, the Commons can only support as much as a hundred cows. One hundred farmers each bring a single cow, and they all enjoyed the sense of collective spirit. To begin with, the resource is good and free! But each farmer will eventually realize, “If only I can bring another cow. That will instantly double my income and will only place a one percent strain on the Commons. That is a freaking great deal!” However, all villagers will start to bring an extra cow because that is the logical step forward. With this scenario, two hundred cows will overgraze the Commons. The ecological equilibrium of this grassy pasture will suffer. The cows will all die. And the villagers will all starve to death. A pretty dark fairy tale material right there, I guess!

This parable is based on Garrett Hardin’s enduring essay titled “Tragedy of the Common,” published in Science magazine in 1968. The underlying assumption? That we, human beings, are biologically wired to follow our selfish personal interests. It highlights the epitome of individualism by arguing that humans will follow their interests more than common goals. Atlas Shrugged 2.0! And the moral of the narrative? That there is a need to cooperate or everyone loses. In the real world, we can draw parallel situations wherein humans who persevere for the common good are far lesser and lose out in the struggle of existence over the more self-serving ones. This eventually leads to intensive resource over exploitation and the tragedies of failed cooperation.

In the global landscape, the burgeoning climate change, a phenomenon with anthropogenic cause, is heavily attributed to the self-serving decisions of our exploitation-driven global politics (a politico-economy of the wealthy few). Many academic studies already showed that significant increases of potent greenhouse gasses are results of human activity. Ironically, we continue to pump more into the atmosphere. 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded.

As hopeless and cold this story gets, I believe it also needs a critical rereading. So we ask, is it possible to avoid this tragedy? Yes. But first, we need to explicate why Hardin’s position needs a rethink. Despite his erudite reflection on the relationship of human nature and shared-resource system (like the Commons or Earth), Hardin’s vision lacks a sense of human history. His monolith portrayal of people as selfish social creatures definitely lacks our long history of survival due to cooperation and collective struggle. Prior to the emergence of complex societies with clearly-defined social hierarchy, humans followed egalitarian systems wherein consensus and common goals are of great importance. Many hunting-gathering communities, for instance, follow that each hunter’s success belonged to all the group members. The symbol of collectivism is exemplified by the distribution of animal meat after their hunt. Intended or not, this practice allows for an equally distributed resources which leads to a system of social-leveling that eliminates inequality. Many of these hunting-gathering communities existed for more than 80,000 years. And each of the members will acquire a sense of collective responsibility because all of them benefit from it.

In this case, individualism is a relatively new construct vis-à-vis the long history of mankind. To conclude that humans are not capable of producing systems that will redress environmental concerns simply undermines human creativity. In response to Hardin’s perspective, political scientist Elinor Ostrom (a recipient of Nobel Prize in Economic Science for her work on the management of common-pool resources) argued that environmental crisis can be prevented if we learn to self-organize around common interests. Ostrom’s researches on American lobster fisheries, community irrigation schemes in Spain, Nepalese forest management, consistently show that sustainable and productive environment can be achieved by following a combination of principles.

Elinor Ostrom’s Principles for Managing the Commons

  1. Delineate obvious group boundaries.
  2. Match rules main use of general goods to local needs and circumstances.
  3. Guarantee that those affected by the rules can take part in modifying the policies.
  4. Ensure the rule-making privileges of the community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Expand a scheme, conceded out by neighbourhood members for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Employ graduated sanction for law violators.
  7. Grant available, low-cost means for argument resolutions.
  8. Make accountability for governing the common assets in nested tiers from the least level up to the whole unified system.

Contrary to the general expectation that government authorities and market are the key institutions that can guide common resources, Ostrom asserted that localized systems and rules are actually the most effective answer to the dilemma of environmental crisis. It is the people that should seize self-organization because they best understand their problems, needs, and goals.

Final Thoughts…

Of course, global concerns are far more complicated. But I think it is remarkable that different agreements and protocols to reduce carbon emissions are being pursued up there. More than 80 mega-cities across the globe are already arranging climate action. Recently, 195 countries linked to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) forwarded Accord de Paris (The Paris Agreement) which hopes to deal with greenhouse gases emissions and to improve community resiliency under climate change.

Surely, the movements and efforts are still developing. It is not perfect, that is for certain. National initiatives and commitment also need to improve to address global climate crisis. But what is fascinating is the progress of environmental consciousness, not only in the global arena but also in the local level. Regional and local efforts show that societies can create systems and mechanisms (which are independent from international agreements) directed to address a globally common issue. And the world is closely watching, now more than ever. After all, the villagers grazing the cows are not as dumb as we expected them to be.