Cookies can be hard to find in my house.
It’s not that we don’t buy cookies. It’s just that my kids tend to eat them all before I get any.
I used to think this was a petty familial problem, one of dozens of niggling irritations that parents like me reluctantly deal with every week. But it turns out that my inability to pop a chocolate chip cookie or two into my mouth when The Late Show with David Letterman comes on also explains why humanity will probably destroy the world and eventually be forced to colonize Mars or fly rocket ships to distant galaxies in search of Earth-like planets to inhabit.
Environmental policymakers refer to my problem as “the tragedy of the commons.” Simply put, the tragedy of the commons posits that if a group of people are interested in using a common resource such as a reservoir, game preserve, forest or a bag of ginger snaps, they’ll selfishly exploit that resource until it’s depleted, sometimes irrevocably.
We know this is true both instinctively and from our recent environmental experience, not to mention our squabbles over snickerdoodles. But nobody had fully explained exactly why it’s the case until 1968, when University of California biology professor Garrett Hardin published a highly influential academic paper called The Tragedy of the Commons. Hardin’s paper specifically addressed the growing problem of world overpopulation, but the theory behind it has since been applied to nearly every environmental problem the world faces, from the management of our fisheries to climate change caused by air pollution. Hardin’s work is interesting partly because even though it was revolutionary at the time, he based some of his thinking on the work of early 19th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and the obscure 18th-century amateur mathematician William Forster Lloyd, who probably didn’t eat enough cookies growing up.
I almost always feel miserably unhappy when I don’t get my Oreos. But Whitehead depressingly yet correctly points out that “the essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” He adds that “this inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the future.”
Or, to paraphrase Whitehead’s thoughts in the vernacular of the day, life’s a bitch and then you die.
Lloyd was even more disheartening than Whitehead in a way because he described Whitehead’s expression of the inevitability of tragedy in the cold, hard language of math. I’m not much good at math—I’m horrible at it, in fact—but given some time and the aid of a calculator I can add and subtract simple numbers, which is exactly how Hardin explains Lloyd’s equation.
Imagine that a group of herdsmen freely graze their cattle in pasture. As long as they all use the land within its carrying capacity, everything will be okay because the pluses and minuses of cattle ranching will balance one another out in a zero-sum equation. But if one of the herdsmen decides to add one extra cow to his herd, he’ll gain by +1. Because the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, however, the negative utility for his decision is only a slight fraction of -1. Mathematically, then, the most sensible course of action for the herdsman—and, by extension, each of the herdsmen who share the field—is to increase the size of his herd, singly at first, then as the consequences of his self-interest aren’t immediately self-evident, without limit.
Eventually, though, the day of reckoning will arrive, when a confluence of overgrazing, drought and disease suddenly collapse the herds and plunge the herdsmen and their families into famine. Hardin argues that neither appeals to conscience nor technological advances in ranching can prevent this disaster, partly because it only takes one herdsman to crumple moral resolve and ruin it for everybody, and partly because technology can’t evolve fast enough to meet rapidly evolving and changing environmental conditions.
“Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all,” Hardin says.
Until recently, my family didn’t know anything about Hardin’s bummeristic tragedy of the commons. But when the kids persisted in eating unfair shares of coconut macaroons and oatmeal raisin cookies, we stopped buying them, explaining that if everybody can’t have their fair share, then nobody will get any at all. (Except mom and dad, of course, who keep a secret stash of cookies hidden under the Christmas napkins in the china hutch.) That led to a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
My wife, Kerry, calls this approach to correcting undesirable behavior “natural consequences.”
I usually refer to it as a form of punishment that leads to “endless bitching and moaning, and is driving me to drink.”
But Hardin and other environmental-policy theorists who later built on his highly influential work would probably call it “mutual coercion.” Mutual coercion is an agreed-upon social arrangement that produces responsibility at the same time it leads to the responsible use of finite resources. Neither free-thinking liberals nor conservative free-market advocates like to admit it, but in order to be successful, communities and societies must agree on thousands of similar policies that are based in mutual coercion, from laws making it illegal to rob banks and rules limiting parking downtown to 2 hours to taxes that fund education and social programs that provide basic health care to society’s weakest members.
Such rules always infringe on somebody’s personal liberty and often seem onerous, especially around election time, when cries of “rights” and “freedom” fill the air. But as Hardin points out, “What does ‘freedom’ mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so.”
I’ve tried to explain Hardin’s logic to my kids when they complain about being limited to eating two cookies when they want three.
“Injustice is preferable to total ruin,” I say, quoting Hardin.
But they just stare at me blankly, like I’m a complete idiot or speaking a foreign language. Then they usually either suggest that we buy more cookies—money apparently being a renewable resource in our household—or wait until my back is turned to sneak another one.
And I rarely find out what they’ve done until David Letterman comes on.
Which is a real tragedy.
Author’s note: This post is dedicated to my new friend, Lois Sterns, who is a careful reader and accomplished writer with refined tastes.