Reflecting on The Tragedy of the Commons During COVID-19

April 6, 2020

Gary Cocke, Director of Sustainability


“What is the tragedy of the commons?” presented by Nicholas Amendolare at TED Ed in 2017

“What is the tragedy of the commons?” presented by Nicholas Amendolare. View on YouTube.

The Tragedy of the Commons was first described in a pamphlet discussing the overgrazing of cattle in village common areas published by economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833. In 1968, Garret Hardin published “The Tragedy of the Commons” in Science, building upon Lloyd’s ideas to describe the dilemma created when individuals share stewardship for limited resources in broader context.

The issue is that shared stewardship of resources places short term self interest in opposition to the long-term common good of the population, and of course, all resources are limited. Thus, the Tragedy of the Commons applies to almost all issues of sustainability and should be understood as a fundamental framework in addressing issues. All humans are motivated to act in their own self-interest in order to ensure survival, and can drive us to over-consume to provide a sense of security. This over-consumption can lead to short term benefit for the individual while spreading the cost across the larger population. When many individuals over-consume in the name of self-interest, resources can be strained, ecosystems can collapse, and negative outcomes result for the individual and for the population.

We see the Tragedy of the Commons play out today over and over as we examine environmental, social, and economic sustainability issues. Self-interest motivates us to want cheap, fossil fuels to benefit in the short term, while driving climate change that we will all reckon with. Self-interest motivates us to want cheap consumer goods in the short term, but leaves our oceans choking on plastic waste and drives severe social and economic disparities. I challenge you to think of any issue related to sustainability through the lens of the Tragedy of the Commons, and I think you will find the fundamental dilemma of short-term self-interest working counter to long-term common good.

The Tragedy of the Commons becomes more pronounced when resources become more finite. The short term feels shorter and self-interest feels more threatened, and thus, the long-term common good of the population suffers negative impacts that become more visible.

It is hard to deny that the Tragedy of the Commons applies to what we are facing with COVID-19 [Coronavirus Disease of 2019] . When I see the resource hoarding with toilet paper, baby wipes, paper towels, facemasks, and other supplies that is currently happening, it is plain to see that short-term self-interest is driving scarcity and harming our population. With regards to the shortage of face masks for healthcare providers, the negative outcomes are acute and serious.

We also see people coming together across the aisle, across the country, and across the globe to unify and address COVID-19. Younger people understand that they must practice social distancing to protect people that are more vulnerable. We are adopting aggressive public policies to address the threat of COVID. We see more people than ever taking time to enjoy family, take a walk, tend a garden, or learn a new hobby. As we socially distance ourselves, we are learning that absence makes the heart grow fonder. We do care about others and we do care about the common good.

We are seeing that the Tragedy of the Commons is not simply part of human nature. It is a lesson that we can learn.

I believe that we will come together and we will ultimately defeat COVID-19.

My hope is that we will learn our lesson. I hope that we will place less emphasis on short-term self-interest and place more emphasis on long-term common good. I hope that we will address climate change as a serious threat to the common good. I hope we will address inequalities and lift up the vulnerable. I hope we will learn that we are all in this together.

Gary Cocke

Associate Director for Sustainability and Energy Conservation


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