Avatar and the Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons refers to a situation in which individuals (or corporations) — representing only their own self-interest — will ultimately deplete or despoil a shared limited resource (”the commons”) even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

The traditional example is of herders sharing a common pasture, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. It is in each herder’s self-interest to put additional cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for everyone as a result. This herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the commons will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.

It always amazes me how ignorant we humans (especially americans) remain of this Law of the Commons! One would think that our political representatives, at least, should have a clue about how this works (rather than knee-jerk demonizing “socialism” in even its mildest forms). But now, of course, our congressman are too largely bought and sold by their corporate masters — who not only do not have a clue, but don’t want one!

To be conscious and responsible around the stewardship of our commons — our natural resources — might slow down the ‘inexpensive’ exploitation of nature, and that could affect quarterly earnings! And as long as the taxpayers will bear the costs – and we do bear all the costs of damage to our collective environment or health in the form of taxation or deficits — what is the incentive for corporations, totally focused on short-term profits, to care? None!

We live in an economic system that is continually despoiling the commons for the outsized gain of the few corporate masters who run the show. We need to wake up and insist that our representatives understand the Tragedy of the Commons and their responsibility to avoid it. Our pattern of extolling individual rights, including the rights of corporations, at the expense of the commons, can come to no good end for any of us, including the oligarchs.

Nature will come swooping down on flying dynosaurs and kick our mechanical butts!