Tragedy of the Commons
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I vividly remember an incident from a few years back when I was visiting India. I was traveling by bus and was sitting in the front row and watching the road and daydreaming nothing of significance, when I noticed the signal was red. And then my brain started screaming since the driver wasn’t slowing down at all. In fact, he kept going through the red signal. I was shocked and looked around but nobody seemed to give a damn about it, with perfect nonchalance. The driver knew that the signal was red, and noticed nobody coming in the other roads and so he didn’t care to stop. Since then I have seen this play out several times — people running the red light or even cars going down the wrong lane, like its not a big deal.
I am sure I have seen this many times before as well, and it’s not anything new. It’s just that I had just recently gotten used to the way of driving in the US before the incident. And running a red light in the US is no joking matter.
Why does this happen in India?
Of the many factors that contribute to this issue, one issue that I want to touch upon is the “Tragedy of the Commons” and want to use the Iceberg analysis tool to dig a bit deeper.
The ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote an article in 1968 where he describes a setup that inevitably leads to a tragedy (emphasis mine):
Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons…
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.
1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.
Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
It’s not that these herdsmen are bad. Or stupid. This is game theory playing out here. Based on the payoffs (or utilities), game theory dictates that the best action to take for every herdsman is to exploit the resource, even though that will result in eventual ruin for everyone. It’s how the system is set up.
One way to fix this situation is to set up a feedback loop that sends a strong dampening signal if someone uses more of the resource (e.g. if they are required to pay fees to access the pasture). Or install fences and restrict the area each herdsman can use.
What is necessary here is to set up structures and policies that can act as deterrent to avoid the tragedy of the commons.
This is where I would like to urge you to think about the iceberg analysis to get more clarity on the situation. You can start to see the hidden forces at play here, especially the structures (or lack of them).
Going back to the traffic incident, the bus driver’s incentive is to do more trips, and thus to save time. The utility from the driver’s perspective dictates that he should keep going. Moreover, there are no fines for running the red signal. And culturally, running the red signal is not something that’s frowned upon (unlike in the US).
So these are the structures that are missing. In the absence of rules and regulations, people go every which way as they please prioritizing their time.
This time when I was in India, I saw a different incident play out at a T-junction. A bus was turning into the T, and was having a hard time because a car was coming out of it (these roads are narrow). The car was in turning having a tough time, because it was blocked by another one going straight, which was obviously blocked by the bus. What was worse is that the vehicle I was in decided to go around this car, and make matters much worse by blocking everyone including oncoming traffic. I wasn’t sure whether to be infuriated or laugh at this situation. Thankfully, it got cleared in a few minutes by people inching here and there, yelling at each other.
If you go back to the Iceberg, you will see that the bottom most level is the “mental models.” Mental models about road safety or driving etiquettes in India are sorely lacking, because the government hasn’t prioritized educating the masses about this. If you are thinking safety and good etiquettes should be common sense and you can’t blame the government, I will ask you to hold that thought for a minute.
A related problem is that of people littering on the streets in India, which includes households dumping garbage in the streets. Again, just like the herdsmen, these are not stupid people. This happens because the essential structures are missing. There are no garbage trucks that come every week to collect the trash. And the feedback loops that can help deter people from littering is missing (in the form of rules and regulations).
Again, you may be wondering, isn’t this common sense that it’s not hygienic to dump trash in front of your own home?
Yes, it’s common sense for you and me, but not for many others. It’s common sense, because we have been educated about it from our schools, and parents, and people around us. Wisdom gets passed down from one generation to another.
Let’s go a few centuries back to Europe. People were not taking bath as often we do. Apparently, “wash our hands often, your feet seldom, and your head never” was a common English proverb. And Queen Elizabeth took bath once a month, which is quite often considering other accounts of people taking bath once in several years. Over here in the Americas, it wasn’t very different. In “At Home: A Short History of Private Life”, Bill Bryson writes:
When Henry Drinker, a prominent Philadelphian, installed a shower in his garden as late as 1798, his wife Elizabeth put off trying it out for over a year, “not having been wett all over at once, for 28 years past,” she explained.
Also consider this, from the book:
At Leeds in the 1830s, a survey of the poorer districts found that many streets were “floating with sewage”; one street, housing 176 families, not had been cleaned for fifteen years… where wastes could all too easily seep in… In London, the Thames absorbed anything that wasn’t wanted: condemned meat, offal, dead cats and dogs, food waste, industrial waste, human feces, and much more.
A lot of things we take as common sense today was not so common. Things take a while to change, and once people build good mental models, they pass it down for subsequent generations, in the form of generational wisdom.
In developed countries, there are many such structures and mental models captured by the society compared to developing or third-world countries. And the government has more energy, time and money to enact many more rules and regulations to minimize tragedy of the commons.
Of course, tragedy of the commons is not entirely absent in developed countries. Pollution is a classic example. There are so many industries dumping poisonous gases into the environment. In fact, we continue to drive our gas cars knowing that we are contributing to the pollution and climate change, eating into our shared and finite resource. Other examples include the use of antibiotics for cattle and overfishing.
And if you look closely, you will see some form of it play out here and there. I hope this article was helpful in equipping you with a new lens with which to view the world and see the hidden forces in action. If so, please don’t hesitate to share this article!