Friday, October 30, 2009

Common Tragedy

Have you ever heard of the tragedy of the commons? It represents a dilemma in which individuals, all acting independently with their own self interests in mind, will ultimately destroy a shared resource even when it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen. The context that I first learned about this dilemma involved the community pasture. The sole quality grazing land available for a town to use. Everyone agrees that they will put no more than 10 cows on the land to protect the precious resource from overgrazing. The problem starts when one farmer has just a few more than 10 cows that need to graze on the land, so he slips them in hoping that nobody will know. How could just a couple of extra cows be a problem? The issue of course is that he is not the only one doing it. Eventually the number of cows exceeds what the pasture can support and it is destroyed for everyone. The tragedy of the commons.

A similar kind of story is illustrated by today's picture. A silly notion to be sure, but a wizard has turned Homer's head into a donut. This just happens to be his favorite food. In his lust and complete lack of self-control, he begins to eat his head. He knows this will eventually be his end, but in his words, "I'm just too good to stop".

Why is it that people who should know right from wrong still consistently choose the path that leads to tragedy? Is it because they are stupid? Uneducated? Unloving? Is it because they are anarchists to their very core? I am certain that the answer is no to each of these. I think the answer is that humans are, by nature, selfish creatures. It requires constant and consistent effort for us to put others first. I suspect that the tragedy of the commons results from the fact that we trick our minds via rationalizations that one extra cow or cigarette or serving of food or negative thought or store purchase won't hurt anyone. What an over-reaction. You're making too big of a deal of it. Geez, lighten up. The problem is that one slips so easily into two. Then three. Then, ...., tragedy.