Curiosity Over Pride
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Monday, June 15, 2009
Part III- The Tragedy of the Commons Part I
We continue where we left... Specifically, I hope to illustrate how The Tragedy of the Commons is really just a special instance of the more general conservation of energy and conservation of risk.
Originally an article by Garret Hardin for Science in 1968, The Tragedy of the Commons describes a classic game theory dilemma in which multiple individuals, acting independently in their own self-interest, ultimately destroy a limited shared resource even when it is clear that destroying the resource is not in any individual's long term interest.
Most typically, as Garret himself intended, The Tragedy of The Commons is evoked as metaphor for ecosystems where common resources like land, air and water are at risk of spoilage by a few. Indeed, in this ecosystem context, the metaphor is commonly used by Doomers to describe the problems societies face near the precipice of collapse. Images of a society following the disastrous footsteps of Easter Island in the South Pacific, or Vietnam's Angkor Wat, or Central America'sMaya are common.
But these notions of the metaphor are both too simple and complex at the same time. For at its very core, the Tragedy of the Commons is all about finite or limited resources and this is really just the same thing as the conservation of energy or the conservation of risk. Energy (or risk) can be transferred from one part of the system to the other, but it cannot be created (or destroyed). If one person uses energy from a common source, or reduces their own risk by transferring their own risk to everyone else in the form of increasing system risk, the common resource has that much less energy for everyone else or takes on that much more risk for everyone to mitigate.
And while most people understand this concept for a limited number of things, they tend to have trouble recognizing it applies to everything as everything is actually a limited resource- and I mean everything. It simply matters what manifold or perspective you want to look at an information pattern from.
Indeed, The Tragedy of the Commons metaphor applies to any closed system that contains at least three relatively independent variables (or information patterns, or building blocks or manifolds or whatever else you want to call the sub elements of the system).
Here are but a few of an infinite number of examples:
a. Two men and one woman (or the reverse) b. Two cars and one parking space c. Two people and one marriage d. Two customers and one cashier e. Two hungry children and one hot dog g. Two types of school children and one school budget h. Two "people" (mother and fetus in mother's womb) and one the lifestyle of one woman to live i. Two religions and one god j. etc...
The number of examples is infinite because the number of perspective is infinite. And to remind everyone, perspectives can include far more than just three variables (for example, the needs of every child in a school and one school budget or the needs of every individual in a country vs. the need of that country to compete against other countries, etc...).
Yet for every one of these example, the inherent dilemma posed by The tragedy of the Commons, a special instance of the more general law of the conservation of energy, holds true. And this means that for a closed system that contains three or more variables, each variable must have a relationship to every other variable in the system as well as to the system as a whole. Any change that occurs to one variable must transmit that change to every other variables as they take up a position in opposition to this change.
And perhaps the lesson I most want to convey from this entire post: This relationship must hold true from any perspective one looks at the system from. And I mean ANY.