Triumph of the commons

Via Alessandro Delfanti:

In an article published by New Scientist and titled Triumph of the commons: Helping the world to share, the social psychologist Mark van Vugt mixes psychology, ecology and politics to tackle the old problem of managing the commons.


“Do you ever get the impression that civilisation has degenerated into an unedifying free-for-all? Like pigs gobbling at their troughs, we all seem to be out to get as much as possible of whatever is on offer. Everyone is at it, from loggers felling the Amazonian rainforest and fishers fighting over the last few cod to SUV drivers running the oil wells dry and politicians on their gravy trains. Science even has a name for the phenomenon – one that seems eerily prescient following the recent revelation about MPs’ expense claims in the UK. It is called the Tragedy of the Commons.

Four decades ago, ecologist Garrett Hardin published a ground-breaking paper on this phenomenon, arguing that when personal and communal interests are at odds, overexploitation of resources is inevitable. His tragedy of the commons referred to the destruction of communal pasture when individual herders act rationally in their own best interests, each putting as many cows as possible onto the land. The same fate, he noted, is likely to befall any shared limited resource, from the atmosphere and oceans to national parks and rivers. Over the years, and with the rise of environmentalism, Hardin’s ideas have become hugely influential.

Does this mean we are doomed to plunder the world’s resources and trash our planet? Even Hardin wasn’t entirely pessimistic. He noted that groups can create institutions to manage their communal resources, although these usually fail because of “free-riders” – individuals who try to reap the benefits of cooperation without paying any of the costs. The solution he came up with was “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected”. In other words, people must give up their freedom to save the commons. I disagree.

I have identified four key conditions for the successful management of shared environmental resources: information, identity, institutions and incentives. I believe we can and should use this 4i framework as the basis for a plan of action to combat local and global environmental catastrophe. Information, identity, institutions and incentives correspond to what most psychologists believe are the four core motives that influence our decision-making in social dilemmas, respectively understanding, belonging, trusting and self-enhancing.

With a good understanding of human nature, a destructive global free-for-all is not inevitable. Of course we don’t yet have all the answers, but while social psychologists like myself continue to probe human behaviour and motivation, we already know enough to make a difference. I would like ingenious conservationists, policy-makers, marketers and others to start using the 4i framework to influence the way people behave. We only have one planet and as the human population grows its limited resources are increasingly stretched. To avoid a commons tragedy we need to act decisively and we need to act now.”

1 Comment Triumph of the commons

  1. Pingback: What is the Common: An International Conference | OpenData Network

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