What is the Tragedy of the Commons?
In economics and in an ecological context, the tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action in case there are too many users related to the available resources. —Wikipedia
But the idea of the tragedy of the commons was disproved by Elinor Ostrom even before it was published by Garrett Hardin in 1968.
The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions. —The miracle of the commons
Yet the story continues and the tragedy of the commons keeps getting quoted and taught.
If academic citation indexes are any guide, the tragedy of the commons remains far better known to scholars than any of Ostrom’s findings. It continues to be taught, uncritically, to high-school students in environmental science courses. It’s used as a justification by those who support severe restrictions on human immigration and reproduction. Even more frequently, it’s casually invoked as an explanation for human failures: even the eminent biologist E O Wilson, in his book Half-Earth (2016), describes the weakness of international climate-change agreements and the ongoing depletion of ocean resources as tragedies of the commons, without making clear that such tragedies can be averted. —The miracle of the commons
I have previously discussed the power of story, and this is an example of how certain simple and easily understandable ideas can pervade society, even when they are wrong. I concluded that — given the power of stories — a critical literacy skill today is the ability to deconstruct them. Thinking critically about how a story affects us emotionally is important before hitting the Tweet or Post buttons that are now so handy on our ‘smart’ devices. We have to constantly confront the post-truth machines.
The medium is the message, and the medium of story is able to route around our rational brain and go straight to our most primitive feelings. We need to become story skeptics so all those emerging master storytellers on social media platforms do not lead us astray.
Today we need sense-makers even more than storytellers because stories can hijack our minds. We are more open to receiving stories than we are to understanding facts and logical arguments. First we have to make sense, and only then can we find unifying stories to help guide us.
Stories that fuel the constant doubt and outrage online only serve to distract us. Whose story wins will depend on how smart we are. Let’s avoid the tragedy of the wrong stories.