According to the example in the video, there are 12 fish in the pond and 4 fishermen who try to make a living. Every night the fish multiply and each pair add one fish to the pond, so in the morning the four fishermen come to the pool with 16 fish. In this situation, it is in the interest of each fisherman to capture only one fish, in order to keep the original population at 12. In any scenario where someone fishes more, the population will not be able to recover the breeding rate and within a few days, the fish will disappear completely from the pond. The fishermen will remain without any resources, and even if one catches all 16, after two weeks they will be left without food. The conclusion is that when we think of personal interests in relation to finite resources, we must embrace a viable strategy – and this will usually benefit the society as well.
The Tragedy of the Commons begins when every person thinks: “Well, my neighbors will probably want to fish more fish and leave me to die, so I’ll catch as much as I can.” And since all fishermen exercise a similar approach, they fish all fishes and eliminate the population in a short time. This approach, for instance, is one of the major causes of the climate damage caused to our the earth since the beginning of industrialization. This is how forests are cut down, species extinct, air pollution is created, and so on. The nickname for the phenomenon was coined by 19th-century British economist William Foster Floyd, who illustrated how peasants could turn public pasture into a pitted field, each trying to maximize its immediate benefit.
Humans in this context are dual beings. On the one hand, we are the greatest opportunists looking to constantly move forward. Once we recognize that something is a resource that can be used, we go out of our way to make the most of it. Think about – oil, corn, wheat, gas, salt, fabric, meat, milk, cattle, metal, etc. Our opportunism pushes us to take advantage of everything we can, and as quickly as possible. This is our impulsive side.
On the other hand, we are social animals with the highest cognitive functions, including long-term planning ability. When we identify a resource and want to take advantage of it, sometimes we begin to realize that with proper planning, it can be more profitable, certainly when we collaborate with others. While other animals looked at a rock and for millions of years saw rock and nothing else, we looked at the same rock but over time we began to see other things too.
The Tragedy of the Commons is at play – Coronavirus (pandemics), climate change, and global conflicts
The Tragedy of the Commons is at play indeed. The coronavirus, the global climate issues, and the geopolitical tensions have created the distinction of humans from a united social system. The coronavirus is a great example of how the game of theory and the tragedy of commons apply to our society. At the end of the day, any person has the right to choose the way of behavior at times of pandemics, although the actions might harm society. But if one decides to go out and might infect other people, the outcome might end the same as… the tragedy of the commons.
Environmental issues and global conflicts have the same rule of thumb. Conflict can escalate after action by an individual who could not obey the rules set to keep the peace and order. For example, the immediate cause for World War 1 was the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his pregnant wife Sophie by a nineteen-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip.
A global pandemic such as the coronavirus creates a tragedy of the commons when self-interest contradicts the actions that need to be taken for the greater good. The question is what is the right balance between the social order and the desires of an individual in a society and can it be done in a global system similar to the one that we live in today. Short-term optimization may seem like a good idea at a given moment, but while the motto of “living the moment” is good for some things, it is less appropriate for our biological lives, which are conducted as a continuous process far into the future. There are concrete examples for both sides. A true anarchist individual, for example, might reflect the opposite mindset of the tragedy of the commons by opposing any state institution. But moreover, Capitalist owners have the opposite incentive as they have a goal to maximize their profit regardless of the impact on the commonwealth.
Greed is a common and inevitable part of human nature, and humans’ intentions are not necessarily bad. Like other creatures, we are programmed to use the environment in order to thrive. Would you say about a beautiful big flower that it exploits the services of butterflies to grow and spread? Like any other creature, we have the same qualities and faults. We have received both this and that, and more importantly – the ability to reflect on our various capabilities and examine how to use them wisely. Game theory is a clear expression of the benefits of impulsivity versus long term observation, and the conclusion, according to this approach, is that whatever is good for an individual is good for both the common and the environment.