Tag Archives: Tragedy of the commons

I versus We

In a recent column in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo asked a question that has preoccupied me for several years: given the wide diversity of global humanity–given the sheer numbers of humans who coexist on this planet with drastically different beliefs, personalities, experiences and cultural conditioning–is genuine co-operation and a measure of community even possible?

As Manjoo puts it,

 What if we’ve hit the limit of our capacity to get along? I don’t mean in the Mister Rogers way. I’m not talking about the tenor of our politics. My concern is more fundamental: Are we capable as a species of coordinating our actions at a scale necessary to address the most dire problems we face?

Because, I mean, look at us. With the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, humanity is contending with global, collective threats. But for both, our response has been bogged down less by a lack of ideas or invention than by a failure to align our actions as groups, either within nations or as a world community. We had little trouble producing effective vaccines against this scourge in record time — but how much does that matter if we can’t get it to most of the world’s people and if even those who have access to the shots won’t bother?

As Manjoo points out, most of the multiple ways in which we are inter-related and interdependent aren’t immediately evident. (As he says, the way deforestation in the Amazon rainforest  affects sea levels in Florida isn’t exactly obvious to the man on the street). But as he also notes, quite properly, the threat posed by the pandemic is another matter. Or at least, it should be.

Sometimes, though, our fates are so obviously intertwined, you want to scream. Vaccines work best when most of us get them. Either we all patch up this sinking ship or we all go down together. But what if lots of passengers insist the ship’s not sinking and the repairs are a scam? Or the richest passengers stockpile the rations? And the captain doesn’t trust the navigator and the navigator keeps changing her mind and the passengers keep assaulting the crew?

Can we ever put the common good of humanity above our individual and tribal commitments?

Research suggests that we humans do have the capacity to come together. Manjoo refers to groundbreaking work by Indiana University’s own Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel winner. Ostrom’s research went a long way toward debunking widespread belief in the “tragedy of the commons,” and showed “countless examples of people coming together to create rules and institutions to manage common resources.” Despite an enormous amount of neocon and rational-choice propaganda to the contrary,  Ostrom demonstrated that most people aren’t profit-maximizing automatons– that humans really can act on behalf of the common good, even when that action requires personal sacrifice.

However, Ostrom also understood that the nurturing of community requires institutions supportive of the common good. And therein lies my own concern.

Someone–I no longer recall who–said “It’s the culture, stupid.” What far too few of us seem to recognize about human society is the absolutely critical role that is played by culture and paradigms/worldviews–widespread assumptions about “the way things are” supported by embedded systems and institutions and habits of socialization.

What we desperately need are institutions supporting a culture that facilitates an appropriate balance between “I” and “we”–an overarching construct that enables each individual to pursue his or her own idiosyncratic telos while still being supportive of a strong community–and a recognition of how capacious our understanding of community must be.

The tribes fighting it out today are grounded in race, religion, and other (essentially superficial) markers of human identity. At some point–and thanks to the existential threat posed by climate change, we may be at that point–we need to redefine “we” as the human race. At a minimum, we need to come together to do those things that are necessary to keep the planet we inhabit capable of sustaining human life.

At some point, we need to realize that humanity is our tribe.

Maybe it’s because I’m old, maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many instances of people who are bound and determined to pursue obviously destructive paths, but I worry that too many of us have lost the ability to see beyond “I” to “we” and to envision a healthy balance between the two.

The pandemic and climate change are tests, and so far, at least, we’re failing.