Letter to the Editor: Tragedy of the Commons has more to do with community size
In Robyn Parker’s rambling column, which ran in the Free Press on August 28, the point she finally makes is that humankind, especially Americans, are having, in a broad sense, a disastrous affect on the Earth. She ends her column by stating “One can only wonder how great the cost must become before we’ll change our habits.” Her statement is obviously rhetorical, nonetheless I would like to suggest some answers.
Nobel Prize Laureate Elinor Ostrom, and her colleagues, concluded that resources could be managed in a sustainable way where resources are well defined, where there is a dependence on limited resources and where communities are “small and stable populations with a thick social network and social norms promoting conservation”.
In other words, small communities can afford to cooperate more fully to manage resource utilization and do so in a way that benefits all within the community. I believe that the important idea here is community size.
Individuals within small societies cannot to be anonymous. Afterall, it is cooperative interaction that favors the success of individuals. With interaction comes responsibility to others within the community.
Within large societies, however, anonymity is much easier because the number of individuals within the society dilutes personal responsibility. Social responsibility of any one individual can be vanishingly small.
In the United States where the population is some 310 million, no one person need have responsibility to anyone outside of their family and social group. How many would admit to having any responsibility for the taking of innocent lives at Sandy Hook Elementary? And yet, as Americans, we all do share responsibility. Likewise no one would admit to doing more harm than any other anonymous person — be it pollution, resource depletion, consumption, or whatever. And yet harm goes on at an alarming rate.
This is the real Tragedy of the Commons. Robyn Parker’s query is irrelevant.
John Jenkins, PhD
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