When I was in college, I had a fairly peculiar sociology professor, as I’m sure most sociology professors are. His name was Marty, he wore old man sweaters, and he texted people on his flip phone before class would start. You know. Weird shit.
After passing out a test one day, Marty told us all to take note of the bonus points he was offering us.
The last page of the test contained not a question, but instead two simple options for us to choose from. The top of the page read, “Circle One” and below that was listed “2 points” and “5 points.”
Marty said we were free to choose either option, but if more than 10% of our class chose the 5 point option (which amounted to 3 people out of our 30 person class), then no one would get any bonus points.
At this point, I started glancing around at my classmates. I knew that as a class we were a couple of french fries short of a happy meal, and I was leery of our ability to come out of this predicament in the green.
I breezed through the test, picked the 2-point option, and told Marty I was going to make like a tree and get out of there.
A week went by and I eventually found myself back in sociology class. Marty graded the tests and the results were in: we fucked it up.
I was pissed. I wanted to stand up and yell, “This is why we can’t have nice things!” but instead I internalized it and wallowed in my inability to express emotions to other people. Cheers to dying of a brain aneurysm in my forties, I guess.
Our professor said that 7 people chose the 5-point option, which meant that no one got any bonus points. I got 100% on the test, so I didn’t give two shits about the bonus points. But I was disappointed that my peers were unable to exercise any awareness of The Common Good.
There is no agreed definition of The Common Good, but it is generally agreed to be “the result of an action or decision that benefits the greatest number of people and harms the least.”
It’s a concept that allows one to approach a moral or ethical quandary from a place of pragmatism where you maximize reward and minimize risk. In philosophical terms, this is the central tenet of Utilitarianism.
The exercise with the bonus points was an excellent caricature of this concept. It (should have) forced me and my fellow classmates to come to understand that a decision we had to make as individuals had the potential to affect every member of the group.
At the risk of no one getting any bonus points, the decision that would have best aligned with The Common Good would have been for each of us to select the 2 point option.
Alas, we were unable to do that. Instead of a total of 60 bonus points being distributed to the class, we amassed a whopping zero due to the selfishness of a few individuals.
You’re probably thinking, “Well, isn’t that a shame.”
To which I would reply, “Why, yes. Yes it is. In fact, it’s worse than a shame; it’s a tragedy. The Tragedy of the Commons.”
And then you’d say, “What are you talking about?”
And I’d say, “Well if you’d just let me explain myself for a goddamn second I’d fucking tell you.”
The Tragedy of The Commons
The Tragedy of the Commons (ToC) is perhaps one of the greatest sociological and economic conundrums we face as a society.
ToC is a concept that seeks to outline the fact that humans are inherently selfish and self-concerned. When a member of society is given the choice between benefitting the larger population at one value or only themselves at a higher value, people will often choose the option in which they gain more (or lose less) than everyone else, regardless of any negative effects on the group.
ToC also takes scarcity of resources into account. When individuals decide the amount of a particular resource that they personally appropriate for themselves, it is often done without considering the larger group of people that the resource could also benefit.
Marty didn’t care about the bonus points any more than I did. The inclusion of the bonus point dilemma on the sociology exam was first and foremost a test of our knowledge of ToC, a term we spent a good bit of time exploring earlier in the semester.
By selecting the 2-point option, we were expressing an understanding of ToC, compassion and respect for our other fellow classmates, and an acknowledgment of The Common Good.
However, there is a reason that it’s called the “Tragedy of the Commons” and not the “Law of the Commons” or the “Commons Rule.” The “Tragedy” is a pessimistic acceptance of the apparent fact that humans in general will almost always put their personal wants and needs first, before that of the group, regardless of any potential repercussions.
It’s basically a law of nature that says, “Humanity is fucked because we’re all selfish and there’s nothing we can do about it so you might as well just go kill yourself because we’re all just space dust in the cosmic wind.”
Actually, I added that last bit myself, but you get the idea.
The term is mainly used when looking at situations from an economic standpoint, such as the incentives companies have to reduce pollution, or limiting how many fish can be caught in a specific area before depopulation occurs.
But ToC plagues us as a population in every facet of our lives.
Remember the last time your boss bought pizza for the office? There was enough pizza for everyone to have two pieces, but those fucking pigs from external sales each took three and so by the time you got finally off of your conference call with the one client of yours who always calls you “champ,” there was no pizza left for you, which is bullshit because the external sales guys are only even in the office for a few weeks of the year anyway and they get a per diem to buy their own damn food! Whatever.
The main point is that the fundamental problem with humanity is a blatant disregard for other people’s rights to resources. We make assumptions on a daily basis that permit ToC to persist. But these could easily be changed to benefit humanity as a whole opposed to select individuals.
So here is a list of concepts that people need to get through their thick skulls in order to mitigate ToC and allow the greatest number of people to benefit from the scarce amount of resources this depressing world has to offer.
1. You Are Not the Exception
“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club.
Do something you’re bad at. Go to the gym or try to juggle or ask out that girl you ogle every day. Display your insecurities like badges of honor. Ask people what they don’t like about you and let them go to town. Knock yourself down a few pegs, and get that goddam chip off of your shoulder.
You are one of 7.4 billion other self-interested parasites occupying valuable space and squandering countless resources. The sooner you can accept that your individual predicaments and problems are not even remotely close to being unique, the sooner we can start turning this shitshow of a world we live in into something a little more worthwhile.
Stop cutting people off in traffic. You are not the exception.
Stop thinking you don’t have to wait in line. You are not the exception.
Stop fucking littering. You are not the exception.
Stop fooling yourself into thinking that you are better than everyone else.
Embrace the absurdity of your life.
You are not the exception.
2. Share The Fucking Blankets
So you’re laying in bed with bae. There are two people and one blanket. You both want to lay in bed and you both want to be under the covers. If you turn over with the covers to get warmer, bae will get cold. If bae turns over with the covers to get warmer, you will get cold. The solution?
No one turns over. It’s that fucking simple.
You’re stuck with each other, so you might as well snuggle up and make the best of the situation. Just be happy you actually have someone to share blankets with.
In application to the real world, we need to learn to share what we have.
The sooner we accept that we’re all stuck with each other on this giant rock hurtling through space, and that there isn’t enough of anything to go around, the sooner we can realize that the only way to fairly distribute things is to make sure that everyone is at least provided with the opportunity to have an equal stake in the resources this world has to offer so that we can make life in general just a teensy bit less shitty for the majority of the people living on this planet.
3. Quit Being So Goddamn Miserable
It might not seem like it, but happiness is a resource, too. And there certainly isn’t enough of it going around.
Fortunately, happiness is a resource we can create organically.
Find a way to love and respect your neighbor or fellow man. If you can’t do that, then at least learn to tolerate him. And if you can’t do that, then you don’t deserve to be a member of society. Take that shit somewhere else because we have no room for that here. Go build a cabin in the woods of Canada or something.
I realize that shitty things happen every day that are out of our human control. But can we just take a second to recognize how amazing it is that we’re all here to witness all of the incredible ideas, feelings, and sensations this world has to offer?
The misty breeze off of an ocean on a cool summer morning.
The indescribable elation derived from the smile of your significant other.
The fact that your parent’s genes could have combined in a million different ways, but they didn’t, and now you exist.
You could be dead. You don’t have much time on Earth as it is, yet you waste the time you do have being miserable. Yeah, okay. That makes sense.
4. Get Out And Start Pushing
We’re in this together. We cannot hope to continue to make progress as a society unless we put forth a collective effort.
Stop riding on the waves of the successes of others. Stop pushing back on the efforts the group is trying to collectively make. Hop on down with the rest of us commoners and help lift everyone else up.
Do whatever it takes to find a little humility and place the world on your shoulders. I guarantee you it will be a lot less fucking heavy if we all start lifting it together.
5. Save Some For The Rest Of Us
Beyond America’s problem with consumerism, we need to learn to be okay with not getting everything we have ever wanted all the time.
There is a place for dreaming in our society. We’re allowed to have wants and desires. But we need to know when to abandon them because of their impracticality.
We’ve built skyscrapers and bridges and fucking rocket ships that can take us outside of the atmosphere of our planet. Yet when it comes to the discussion of sharing resources with our fellow man, or forgoing an action that might make one individual’s life a little easier at the expense of our personal convenience, we turn into a bunch of fucking four years olds arguing over who gets to use the ball next.
We become complacent in the expectation of our wants. When we are benefitted by the status quo, we see no need to make any adjustments. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, am I right?
No. That’s bullshit. Equality only feels like persecution when you have been a member of privilege your whole life.
So stop being so stingy. Share what you have. Show a little compassion, and maybe smile every now and again.
It’s good for you.