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(T)ragedy Of The Commons
Scriptum Graphema ꞮꞮꞮ [Series formerly known as Alphabet Thoughts]
Imagine a lake with 5 professional fishers. They rely on selling fish to maintain an income. Each fisher is incentivized economically to catch as many fish as possible. However, the lake only has a limited supply of fish, composing a shared resource. The tragedy appears when the fishers catch more fish than the lake can replenish. As the fishers attempt to catch more, the available fish are further and further reduced. Eventually, the fishers will fight over scraps, and most if not all will be forced to seek a new source of income.
It is clear that each fisher would benefit from a sustainable source of income, however each fisher is also incentivized to catch as many fish as they can. Thus, regulation is necessary. For sustainable success, some sort of fishing limit must be applied, whether by government, non-government agencies, or by mutual agreement among the fishers.
This concept applies to all sorts of systems and resources. Water consumption, pasture grazing land, pollution/environmental harms, to name a few. The tragedy of the commons is itself a specific form of perverse incentive, where individuals are rewarded for selfish and harmful actions.
It is critical to note that resources are often not regulated in an inclusive manner. One “solution” to the tragedy is to give ownership of the common resource to a single person or organization, as they will then be incentivized to manage it sustainably for economic gain. Even in less egregiously unfair regulatory situations, unethical extractive practices are often created by forces such as government corruption, military power, entrenched prejudice and oppression, and social power differentials. These extractive practices result in many resources being sent into the hands of a few people, with most of the population receiving little to no benefit.
For a more equitable and mutualistic future, the creation of inclusive institutions is a massive priority. Confrontation and zero-sum games are not the only path. We can all go further if we work together.