The Other Tragedy Of The Commons
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Politics and Activism

The Other Tragedy Of The Commons

Do we ignore opportunities for charities that are "too small"?

The Other Tragedy Of The Commons
The Nature Conservancy

Garrett Hardin once wrote a philosophical essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons” discussing the danger of collectively-owned resources. An example is if 10 shepherds each have 10 sheep, and they all go out to pasture at appointed times, what happens if one shepherd decides he wants to take his sheep out an additional time? There’s plenty of pasture to go around, and his sheep will be healthier if they can eat more, so what’s the harm? The thing is, eventually all the shepherds will come to the same conclusion, and the pasture will be gone before long. This, Hardin argues, is true for any resource that is used by multiple people, no matter how big or small. It examines a tendency of humans to behave in an “atomistic” way, only paying attention to their own actions without thinking about the effect that other individuals have on the world (like singular atoms unaware of any other atoms in a molecule).

There’s another tragedy of the commons that I see sometimes. It follows the same principle, but works in the other direction: I'm referring to the conclusion that any individual action you take won’t have a meaningful effect on the macro scale can lead you to take a little bit more from the pasture. But what if it led you another way? What if you were thinking of clearing another acre to make the pasture bigger? You might say to yourself “the pasture is so big, one little acre won’t really be useful,” and decide not to. But what if all the other shepherds were also thinking of clearing another acre? What if they all decided not to?

It’s easy to understand why people think in atomistic ways. After all, you’re only living your own life. It doesn’t require you to think about what other people are doing on a macro scale very often. And the macro scale is really huge and expansive, it can be discouraging to look at the big picture. Have you ever looked at a large stack of forms you had to fill out, or a big section of a book you have to read and thought “gosh, this is so much, it’s going to take forever?” So you might stop looking at the whole and just focus on one little piece at a time. It makes sense. I’ve done it too.

Well this might be how you feel when you see an ad for a charity on TV. You might think “cancer is such a devastating illness, but it’s so hard to treat, and my $10 isn’t going to make any breakthroughs, so what’s the point?” Or what if it’s getting close to election day and you think “you know, my vote isn’t really going to influence this election, so what’s the point of waking up early to go to the polls before work?” It might sound ridiculous, but this is how people think sometimes. And if you’re thinking it, you can bet other people are thinking it too. And if you multiply a single vote by a thousand, or a $10 donation by a thousand, just think of what the whole pasture is losing.

We don’t just do it to ourselves, sometimes we even say it to other people. I saw an article once that talked about how a single person or group taking a service trip to another country doesn’t matter, because you can’t provide the recipients with any meaningful assistance that can really help them. There might be some truth to that, but now you’ve essentially told people who might have been thinking about it not to go on a service trip. A group from my high school went on a trip to Tanzania some years ago, and they helped build some sidewalks for a school there that my school has a working relationship with (they payed their own travel expenses and worked for free). It's not like they massively improved the quality of Tanzanian education, but now that school has more paved pathways. That’s something they might not have been able to get as easily if my peers hadn’t gone to work with them. On a more modest scale, I once took two large contractor bags full of clothes I had outgrown to a collection bin for St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Now I’m not going to clothe every child in need, maybe not even many. But should I stay home and let the clothes keep gathering dust in my closet?

We sometimes have this notion that giving help is only worth it, it only "counts," if it’s some large-scale measure that has a visible impact. This is especially true in the field of social justice. Not many of the justice champions I’ve met would be very impressed by my school’s service trip, or by my clothes donation. That’s why they spend so much time trying to court influential politicians who can write new laws and wealthy philanthropists who can buy new buildings. Well do you know something? Most people can’t write new laws or buy new buildings, but many people can write a small check, or buy a winter coat and some canned soup. If you got even just a hundred people to commit to that, that’s no small feat.

They say that charity begins at home for a reason. And charity doesn’t have to only be good for the recipients, it can also be good for the donors. It’s good for people to feel like they helped out, even in just a little way. It might just motivate them to keep helping out in more ways. Why should it be wrong for a person to feel good for taking a trip, or donating some clothes? Maybe they’ll take another trip and donate some food. That’s certainly better than nothing. If you sent a few boxes of pasta to one family of four you wouldn’t solve hunger, not even close. But that family would get to eat that night when they otherwise might not have been able to. Not every act of charity has to be huge. You can do a lot of good with little ones.

There are a lot of big problems in our society. Poverty, crime, prejudice, global warming, take your pick. Most of us won’t make a huge dent in them acting alone. But we’ll make no dents in them not acting at all. For every person that starts working in little ways, the dent gets bigger. So keep that in mind when you’re deciding what to do with that extra $10.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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