National Geographic : 2018 Jun
EMBARK | THE BIG IDEA GARRETT HARDIN DEFINED ‘ THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS’ AS MANY INDIVIDUALS ACTING IN THEIR OWN SELF- INTEREST WITHOUT REGARD FOR SOCIETY. THE EFFECTS CAN BE CATASTROPHIC. Test-takers I’m hoping that my students will grasp the connections between the classroom exercise, Hardin’s ideas, and our planet’s most pressing prob- lems (including climate change). I allow them to choose between two points or six points of extra credit—but there’s a catch. I stipulate that if more than 10 percent of the class members choose six points, no one gets any points. The extra-credit points are analogous to water, fuel, grazing pasture (from Hardin’s analysis), or any natural resource. According to some free market economic theories, if everyone strives for maximum personal benefit, then societies will thrive. By this logic the student’s rational choice would be to pick six points, just as the shepherd’s rational choice would be to use as much grazing pasture as possible. And those who maximize personal consumption aren’t greedy— they’re strategic. But when everyone chooses this path, the common resource is overtaxed, and societies end up with overharvesting, water shortages, or climate change. A POSSIBLE SOLUTION seems simple: If everyone just moderated their consumption, we’d have sus- tainability. As many of my students say, “If everyone chooses two points, we’ll all get the points.” And yet, for the first eight years I used this exercise, only one class—of the dozens I taught—stayed under the 10 percent threshold. All the other classes failed. This exercise was developed more than 25 years ago. Professor Steve Drigotas of Johns Hopkins University had been using it for some time when he administered it to me and my classmates in 2005. My class failed too—and I, who had chosen two points, was incred- ibly frustrated with my peers who had chosen six. In 2015 one of my students tweeted about the exer- cise—“ WHAT KIND OF PROFESSOR DOES THIS”— and his lament went viral. People around the globe weighed in: Does so many people choosing six points mean it’s human nature to be greedy and selfish? Actually most people aren’t. But it’s very tricky to get people to cooperate, especially in large groups of complete strangers. After all, if someone else is taking more for themselves (running more water or choosing six points), why shouldn’t I? But if we all think this way, eventually we’ll all lose. Hardin suggested that education might make a difference—that if we teach people about the con- sequences of taking too much, they might not. I’ve Dylan Selterman teaches students about the tragedy of the commons with this extra-credit exercise: Choose zero, two, or six points to be added to your final paper grade. If more than 10 percent of you choose six points, no one will receive any points. If you choose zero points, you cancel out one of the six-point choosers, who will receive no points. In his class in fall semester 2017, how did students respond? Read on.