Tragedy of the Commons (and the Common Good)

In my new book Great Decisions, Perfect Timing, I explore how a “visionary decision” needs to take the collective good into careful consideration. A personal criterion of mine is that if anything is good for me, it also has to be good for everyone. Everything is interconnected. If something is not good for everyone, it can’t really be good for me.

Charles Eisenstein’s book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition discusses our “Age of Separation” where we have lost our ties to nature and community. He also points out how we are moving into a new “Age of Interconnectedness.”

Science proves we are interconnected. If you doubt that, just consider climate change. Greenhouse gases (no matter which country they come from) affect the global climate, upsetting the balance of energy entering or leaving the planet. Burning fossil fuels (like coal or natural gas) for electricity is responsible for about 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions are actually affecting our weather, and their production is directly caused by unregulated industries.

Another unfortunate economic byproduct of unregulated capitalism is an unbalanced concentration of wealth among 1% of all people. According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. income inequality has been growing for decades, but it is now higher in the U.S. than it was before the stock market crash of 1929. (This level of income inequality was one of the catalysts that led to the Great Depression.) Income inequality is also endemic to the economies of many other countries around the world, from democracies like India to totalitarian regimes in China and Russia.

In Great Decisions, Perfect Timing, I write about “The Tragedy of the Commons,” an article by ecologist Garrett Hardin that was first published in 1968 in the journal Science. Hardin describes a village of herdsmen whose sheep share a common pasture for grazing. Short-term advantage occurs when any one herdsman adds animals to his herd, but the long-term effect of this kind of infectious behavior is the complete destruction of the pasture. As I write in my book, “win-lose” strategies always turn out to be “lose-lose.”

To the extent that people think they can insulate themselves from their neighbors (whether local or global), they are delusional. Those who play the zero-sum game of win-lose, and consumed with accumulation, are not “voting in their own best interests.” If a decision or action is not to the benefit of the greater good of all, it’s not really good for you. Why not? Because we are all connected!

So how do we align our personal good with the good of all? Eisenstein discusses a society that operates on a gift economy: “If you have more than you need, you give it to somebody who needs it…that’s where real social security comes from.” This is a powerful idea. I wrote in a previous article how the Divination Foundation is my “legacy non-profit”— my way to give back to the cultural commons. We all have the benefit of our wisdom, our attention, and our time. Even a kind word or gesture to a stranger is a way of giving back. We are all a part of this emerging Age of Interconnectedness.