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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Tragedy of the Commons, shame and couches

Author: Guest Writer/Saturday, March 31, 2012/Categories: Uncategorized

I'm fascinated by the Tragedy of the Commons.

The BBC has a great introduction to the Tragedy of the Commons here. It's more than worth listening to, because it will clarify in your mind some of the reasons behind the environmental crisis. 

The idea behind the Tragedy of the Commons was formulated in 1968 by Garrett Hardin to talk about resources that are common to all of us, such as grazing land and fishing stocks. His paper is here

Like, with grazing land, doesn't it get overgrazed, as more and cowboys put their herds out to graze? (Yes, and we get the Dust Bowl.) 

With fishing stocks, doesn't it get over-fished, as more and more trawlers pull up more and more cod? (Yes, and the oceans are getting emptier and emptier.) 

With oil and gas no public land, which theoretically belongs to the people, won't oil companies do whatever they can to get at it? (Yes, and we have fracking spoiling wells.)

When there is no incentive to show restraint, when the resource is seemingly free and available to all, why hold back? Why not take as much as you can until the system collapses. Sure, the resource will be gone, but by then you'll be rich. 

The Tragedy of the Commons -- in my view -- it shows up in so many areas of your life. 

Like, I'm a small-town guy, and I think people in cities are -- generally -- jerks. They step over you in line, they nab the cab before you, they take up all the bus seats. There is little incentive for them to share those resources. That seems like a kind of Tragedy of the Commons. 

And I'm interested in the Tragedy of the Commons because I've also been around the opposite experience. I'm almost done with a book about a year I spent among people who behave in just the opposite manner. 

I spent a year sleeping on the couches of strangers. Most of this was done through websites like GlobalFreeloaders, Hospitality Club and CouchSurfing.org. 

And the people I met through those sites seem to share their resources incredibly freely -- whether just a couch, or food or their time or energy. 

And so one of the questions that I asked at the beginning of my year on couches was: why does this work? Why do people behave well when they're on the couches of others, as they do. (Most of the time.) 

And I came up with two answers:

1. Most people -- despite what you'd think, or what you see on the news -- are generally good.

2. People -- all people -- are afraid of being shamed. They act better when they think they're being watched. 

Since most of this is done through the Internet, these people have online presences and profiles, you can ruin their online reputation by posting something negative about them. People care about their online profiles to I degree that shocked me. And they will go out of their way ... I will go out of my way ... to look good online. And so they will act generously in real life. 

This naturally mirrors what I've experienced in the small towns I've lived in. You cannot be a jerk in a small town because word will get around, and you will look bad. And I care about my reputation in my small town to a degree that you cannot believe. I can't stand being gossiped about, which is how small towns keep people acting right. 

In a city, none of this works. There's no way to shame people. People flit through your life, act like jerks, and flit back out again.

And, when it comes to the environment, this doesn't work, either. Though some activists try to shame SUV drivers by pasting on bumper stickers that say "I'm changing the climate, ask me how!", it's illegal, and feels ... mean. 

So how do you  get people to act right in cities, in the great anonymous world? 

Somehow, you have to find a way to shame them. I would say: put more stuff online. 

Turns out, scientists have come to some of the same conclusions I did -- and they didn't have to sleep on couches for a year.  

Mostly, when they think about the Tragedy of the Commons, they think about the environment. Jennifer Jacquet of the University of British Columbia says some interesting things. 

"People feel very uncomfortable with being asked to be part of that system of punishment," she tells the BBC. "With the Internet, that's really changing. It's really transformed the problem of shaming. And encouraging cooperation in a way that we hadn't seen for a while."

New York City has implemented a Worst Landlords list, lots of sites are publishing the names of buildings that use the most water or electricity or companies that are releasing the most CO2. 

"These sorts of issues that are group problems, there are issues that are amenable to shame," Jacquet says. 

As more of our behavior is visible online, our behavior will get better. People will go back to acting like they do in small towns and in a small English common. The Earth, after all, is small, too. 
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