Tuesday, May 07, 2019

The Tragedy Of The Commons: A Modern View

As part of the transition from 18th Century Agricultural to Industrial England, I was introduced to the concept of "The Tragedy of the Commons".  In short, at one time English villages (perhaps many others as well) had a village commons where anyone could graze their sheep.  Over time, as other land become less and less available, more and more people would use the commons - but as it did not belong to anyone it was not cared for by anyone and thus degraded more quickly as a usable land such that in the end, no-one could use it.

Fast forward 300 years or so.

As I drive to my gym I transit under the major North-South Artery and through an underpass.  As I have looked over to the northern side, I one day noticed a pile of garbage and stuff rising up.

I have no idea where it came from.  One might think it was from those occasional road cleanups that the community service folks do.  There is an ongoing homeless encampment 200 yards away under the overpass that may contribute.  Or perhaps someone just dumped a load there (for all of the civic "We are the future", there is still plenty of that which still occurs around here).

No matter where it came from, the larger question is who is responsible for cleaning it up.  It is on at least four different kinds of property:  city, county, state, and federal (through the interstate).  Yet no-one has taken any responsibility for cleaning it up.  I suppose, if I were to ask, I would get the answer one typically gets at most bureaucracies:  "It is not our responsibility, it is X's, because they have the budget line item for it" or "Our authority ends within 25'/7 m of the freeway.  That  is a problem for Y". 

So, it really belongs to no-one.

Mind you, the pile is just sitting there in our humidity and heat and rain, slowly rotting away and providing a breeding ground for mold, yeasts, and who knows what vermin.  And I am sure that there are some level of individuals (like myself) that drive by it every day and notice it.  And yet there it continues to sit, an eyesore and dumping ground that grows and spreads.

The ultimate breakdown of societies is not always tied to a major failure or event.  It is just as often tied to the simple development that no-one takes care of the major things that society needs to get along - until, like the commons, they are no longer able to be used by anyone.  And once no longer able to be used, things tend to collapse rather quickly.


  1. America is a classic case of "broken windows syndrome." A building my stand vacant for months or even years, and not a single window will be broken. Once someone throws that first rock though, everyone feels it's OK to throw rocks and break windows as well. That's where we're at now. The windows are broken, the rain is getting in and ruining the structure further. I have no idea how to stem the damage or repair the structure. My knowledge and task was maintenance, but the vandalism has outpaced my best efforts. At this point I'm outnumbered and outgunned. A complete rebuild may be necessary by the time this is all done, and the rebuilt structure will be nothing as grand as the original...

  2. Pete, it seems to me to be a Tale of Two Cities - even in my own locale. In some places, real estate is being purchased, redeveloped, and gentrified or retail upscaled as fast as possible. On the other hands, parts of town become worse and worse.

    It is a good analogy. And, much like the Western Roman Empire, the rebuilds will be not quite as magnificent or good...


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