Triumph of the commons: Helping the world to share
By Mark van Vugt | New Scientist
"DO YOU ever get the impression that civilisation has degenerated into an unedifying free-for-all? Like pigs gobbling at their troughs, we all seem to be out to get as much as possible of whatever is on offer. Everyone is at it, from loggers felling the Amazonian rainforest and fishers fighting over the last few cod to SUV drivers running the oil wells dry and politicians on their gravy trains. Science even has a name for the phenomenon - one that seems eerily prescient following the recent revelation about MPs' expense claims in the UK. It is called the Tragedy of the Commons.
Four decades ago, ecologist Garrett Hardin published a ground-breaking paper on this phenomenon, arguing that when personal and communal interests are at odds, overexploitation of resources is inevitable. His tragedy of the commons referred to the destruction of communal pasture when individual herders act rationally in their own best interests, each putting as many cows as possible onto the land. The same fate, he noted, is likely to befall any shared limited resource, from the atmosphere and oceans to national parks and rivers. Over the years, and with the rise of environmentalism, Hardin's ideas have become hugely influential.
Does this mean we are doomed to plunder the world's resources and trash our planet? Even Hardin wasn't entirely pessimistic. He noted that groups can create institutions to manage their communal resources, although these usually fail because of "free-riders" - individuals who try to reap the benefits of cooperation without paying any of the costs. The solution he came up with was "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected" (Science, vol 162, p 1243). In other words, people must give up their freedom to save the commons. I disagree."
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