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The Tragedy of the Commons

"What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it" (Aristotle)

In the long evolutionary history of the human race there have probably been few more difficult periods than the one we are in today. Difficulties have arisen because human consciousness is awakening at a rapid rate, even exponentially. This is good and meant to happen. But such rapid growth of the critical mind presents challenging demands – politically, economically and psychologically. In the past five hundred years there has been a sharp rise in human self-assertiveness, selfishness and competition, leading to increased conflict and warfare worldwide. Adding to the problem is a human desire for a consumer-driven life style which has created a high demand for the common resources of the planet.

The mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms have successfully sustained each other for millions of years and have become a solid base of support for sustaining human life. As human beings have evolved in intelligence, however, they have increasingly taken what they needed from the lower kingdoms – for food, clothing, housing, etc., – but, for the most part, provided little to help sustain these kingdoms. As human consciousness has evolved it has drawn further and further away from the common quality of nature to sustain itself. Nature was thought to be created for humans to exploit. As this imperious attitude developed in man, it led him to think that he had the "right" to use nature's resources as he saw fit. The concept of "freedom to exploit" became a guiding ideal; an ideal that is strongly held today.

Striving and fighting for freedom is a great spiritual path to follow, and is a relatively new attitude that is looked upon with great favor by the spiritual guides of the world. Striving for freedom will eventually lead humanity into the next kingdom in nature – the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of souls. But freedom as it is interpreted today (focused mostly on the material plane) leads to problems in human relations; and it is directly related to human use or misuse of our common resources. In fact, this sense of freedom is often the cause of the tragedy of the commons.

The tragedy of the commons is a term coined by Garrett Hardin, a biologist, in 1968. The classic parable he gave involved the sharing of a communal pasture land for grazing cattle. The pasture would continue to sustain itself if used only by a certain number of cattle. But if one herdsman increased his herd by even one cow, that could set off a chain reaction among the other herdsmen who, out of self interest, added more cows to their herds as well. That would lead to the tragedy of over-grazing and the destruction of the sustainability of the pasture.

This problem was summed up by Hardin:"Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons" (1968).

In this simple parable, tragedy occurs when one herdsman believes he has the "right" to add more cows to his herd, because it would be profitable to do so. He believes he should be free to increase his profits. That is simply good business. Of course if the other herdsmen also sharing the common pasture demanded the same "right", then the outcome is inevitable: the eventual depletion of the limited grazing land. The result would not only be tragic, there would also be a loss of freedom. He and the other herdsmen would no longer have the freedom to use the common grazing land.

Even though this is a small example of what might occur within the limits of a common consumable resource, it raises the moral dilemma often facing humanity in similar situations all around the world. Is it morally right for one individual, one group, one corporation, one nation to exploit a resource without considering the long-term effect their actions could have on others who depend on the same resource?

An egregious example of this moral question occurred in the 19th century in America where huge herds of buffalo roamed the western plains. They were a common resource for food and clothing for many Indian tribes in the region. The Indians killed only what they needed to survive, giving the herds time to replenish themselves. But with the arrival of hundreds of buffalo hunters from the East – spurred on by the high demand in the fashion industry for buffalo hides – the survival of the herds became endangered. Thousands of buffalo were slaughtered only for their hides; the meat and bones were left to rot on the plains. There was little concern for the basic needs of the Indians. To the hunters, the buffalo was a resource free for the taking. Soon the buffalo all but disappeared along with a life-sustaining resource for the Indian tribes.

Today such a selfish exploitation of a consumable resource would be unthinkable and even criminal. But it is still happening with other international resources like some oceanic fisheries. The once plentiful Atlantic cod and wild salmon have nearly disappeared due to over-fishing by large commercial trawlers. A similar fate may lie ahead for certain species of whales. Corporate self interest can be just as selfish as individual self interest, but on a much larger scale and with even more devastating effects. There are international treaties drawn up to protect the resource from selfish exploitation, but the difficulty comes in trying to enforce these treaties. The self interest of nations often blocks any attempt at sanctions or penalties.

Dealing with the power of self-interest is the most difficult challenge when it comes to the equitable management of a consumable resource. It is difficult because it usually requires all users of the resource to adopt a new mind-set, a new way of thinking about the fairest way to manage a limited resource.

Today, the human mind has evolved to a stage where it is now highly active and creative; it is able to comprehend issues on a large scale. This upward and expansive thrust of the self is good and necessary. But it also has its drawbacks: an awakening self is more demanding that its voice and ideas be heard. The individualised self feels it has the right to choose the best way for him to obtain his slice of the good life. As a consequence, short-term gain is emphasised over long-term interest in sustaining the resource.

But while the mind is now highly active, what is often missing in this search for the good is a particular quality of the heart to balance out the self-interested mind, a quality that would condition the mind to think differently; a mind that would enable the individual to think and reason from a new, more inclusive perspective: to place the interest of the resource first, before the interest of himself. For many, this would require a huge leap in consciousness. And where a common pool resource has ended in tragedy, the inability to make that leap is often the cause.

When the mind has not, or cannot, make this leap in consciousness, then the management of a resource has to be settled by negotiations of some kind. Rules have to be set up, boundaries established, monitors to oversee the resource have to be chosen, conflict-resolution mechanisms have to be set up, etc. (Studies and analysis of such cases have been made by Elinor Ostrom, among others, in the book “Governing the Commons” (1990)).

Humanity's ability and willingness to negotiate the use of common-pool resources is really being put to the test over the issue of climate change. The common-pool resource in this case is of course the air, the water and the land of the entire planet. What is at stake is the health, the well-being and even the survival of millions of people on earth. Self-interest really takes over when dealing with the economics of nations and global corporations. Decisions are made based on political grounds and competition and usually not on what is morally the right thing to do for the whole planet. But we face the same dilemma on a planetary scale that the herdsmen faced with the grazing land: whether to let self-interest continue to rule, or whether to strive for more self-control over the human desire for short-term gain, at the expense of the sustainability of the earth.

In the final analysis, whether a common resource is well maintained to serve human needs, or is exploited for personal gain and thus ends in tragedy, depends not so much on adhering to a list of rules and regulations; it depends on acting with an awakened state of consciousness. Each struggle with the management of a commons – as seen recently at the 2009 UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen – seems to be a test to see whether human beings are ready and willing to adapt to the coming Aquarian consciousness of sharing, goodwill and selfless service. On first inspection, the result from Copenhagen seems to suggest that self-interest is still pretty much the rule. However, a deeper analysis reveals that an awakening state is also now in evidence. The fact that many of the representatives from all the nations of the world came together out of a common concern for the world's changing climate (a world commons) is a demonstration of an emerging global mind capacity. It indicates that human beings are starting slowly but surely to recognise and adapt to the coming Aquarian consciousness of sharing and goodwill. And where Aquarian spiritual values influence the management of the commons – locally or worldwide – there one will see good health and sustainability and the avoidance of tragedy.

GOODWILL is… a living expression of synthesis.