Tragedy Of Tragedies

in #informationwar3 years ago (edited)

I'm sure you've all heard about "the tragedy of the commons". What's tragic about this tragedy is that it's been used as a defense for an economy that has caused some of humanity's greatest tragedies...


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source: Wikimedia Commons

"The tragedy of the commons" is a rather easy to understand thought experiment that originated in an essay by William Forster Lloyd in 1833, but got its name in an article in the popular magazine Science by Garrett Hardin more than a century later in 1968. The model is based on the capitalist assumption that we're all rational individuals acting in our own self-interest to maximize our personal wealth, and describes what happens to the commons under this scenario. "Commons" is used to describe everything we share and that's not privately owned, like forests, public parks, fishing waters or something as simple as a field of grass used by several herdsmen to graze their flock of sheep...

In the example of the field, herdsmen and sheep, the tragedy of the commons plays out as follows: moved by their self-interest to maximize their income, each herdsman is incentivized to keep adding sheep to their flock. Yet the field can only feed a limited number of sheep before it becomes overgrazed causing erosion to set in; the maximum number of sheep that can durably be maintained is called the field's "carrying capacity". From the viewpoint of the individual herdsman the calculation is simple; adding sheep may cause the field to suffer, causing all the sheep to have a little less food, but that loss is shared among all herdsmen, so the personal gain of adding a sheep far outweighs the shared loss because of it. From each individual's perspective, motivated by short term gains, it's always profitable to to keep adding sheep above and beyond what's environmentally responsible to the detriment, eventually, of the community of herdsmen and their sheep.

Or what about the fishing waters? Incentivized by personal gains all fishermen and fishing companies catch as much fish as possible, seriously reducing, to the point of near extinction in many cases, the population of certain species. Each season there's less fish left, making them more scarce and therefore more expensive, which incentivizes fishermen to keep fishing. People who still believe in the rationality of capitalism, who believe that competition in free markets is the best thing that ever happened to mankind, would let this tragedy play out to its fatal conclusion, and are the first to complain about government regulation, like establishing fishing quota to limit the number of fish allowed for each fisherman to catch in a season.

All of us, who grew up in this neoliberal world economy have been spoon fed the individual's perspective only; we've been taught to believe that we're all acting "rationally" when we make decisions for the benefit of ourselves, when we don't act rationally at all when we consider the long term well-being of the planet and mankind itself. It makes total sense that we start thinking about and working on a less self-centered paradigm than the one we live by currently. The rational thing to do is to start acting as a community of people who are aware of their collective behavior, instead of a collection of individuals who can't see past the limits of their own lifetimes. Individual selfishness becomes generational selfishness. Après moi le déluge. We only have one lifetime and capitalism says that we'd better get ours while the getting's good, willfully playing out this infamous tragedy...

Karl Marx wrote in Das Kapital (Vol. 1, Part III, Chapter Ten, Section 5) "Après moi, le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society."
source: Wikipedia

Note that Marx uses "society", and not "government" to describe the source of compulsion.

What's even more tragic, is that this thought experiment has been used by proponents of laissez-faire capitalism to defend their case. Many economists will have you believe that the solution to this tragedy is the elimination of the commons altogether, by making everything privately owned. Every square foot of land and every cubic centimeter of air and water privately owned is their Promised Land. And this does make sense in a way when you limit yourself to the strict confines of the closed world of the imaginary field, herdsmen and sheep. A single herdsman who owns the entire field only hurts himself when he exceeds the field's carrying capacity, so he won't do it; he'll try to plateau his flock as to not damage the field that feeds his flock. But this goes out the window in the real world, with many herdsmen and many fields, and we see this happening all around us. And maybe the biggest tragedy of this story is the fact that there are so many market-purists, neoliberals, anarcho-capitalists, libertarians and so on who really believe passionately that less regulation and more privatization will make things better. As far as I'm concerned that's living in complete denial of the mountain-load of empirical evidence to the contrary.

"The commons" in a globalized world means nothing less than "the planet", which means that we're destroying Earth. Yes that's very anthropocentric of me to say and I realize that the planet will survive with or without us in the end. But we won't, not in our current technologically advanced state, a state in which we're very much capable of sustaining the planet's biosphere, ourselves included, and I mean all of us. We just have to wake up and realize that our economical behavior, so to speak, is learned behavior that's based on a bunch of erroneous assumptions about mankind, individuals, and their interactions inside our shared biosphere. But we have our work cut out for us; many don't even believe there's such a thing as "commons", many equate government intervention with an infringement on their personal freedoms, even when living in what's supposed to be a democracy. Some things, no let me correct that; most things are not suited to be left in the fickle hands of profit driven market forces. Most things are things we share and have built together or are given to us by Mother Nature. The self-centered "rational" actor is a detriment to all that we share and to ourselves; never before has this simple truth been so self-evident as right now. So I propose we exchange the tragedy of the commons with some common sense, and a recognition of the fact that greed is NOT good, not good at all; what's good for all of us, is good for each of us.


Tragedy of the Commons | The Problem with Open Access


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