The commons is a general term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest.
We are all born into the commons we call Earth. At birth, no one individual is fundamentally different than anyone else.
We have equal access to the space, air, water and other resources that exist on the planet. We are all citizens of the commons.
The idealized concept of living in the commons succumbs to reality very quickly.
Circumstances of birth vary widely. Over the decades, and centuries, we have parsed the earth and we have each laid claim to that which is "ours" and which should forever remain ours to the exclusion of all others.
In 1968, Garrett Hardin, professor emeritus at the University of California Santa Barbara gave an address entitled "The Tragedy of the Commons."
This elegant statement was subsequently published (December 1968) in Science magazine. To this day, it remains as a classic statement of the dilemmas we face in a world of expanding population and growing expectations played against a backdrop of finite space and limited resources.
Hardin presents an easy to understand example of the tragedy of the commons. Consider a pasture open to all with various members of the community maintaining their cowherds within the pasture.
At some point, one person may add one cow to his herd. He will reap substantial profit from this action, and all others using the resource will suffer a small loss that may be hardly noticeable at first. Others follow suit.
As this logic and this action are repeated over and over by all of the stakeholders, the carrying capacity of the pasture (commons) is exceeded.
Everyone loses and the entire system fails. The objective of this hypothetical situation was to point out that the population of the world could not continue to grow at the 1968 rate.
The thesis was that we could not produce enough food for everyone. This has been proven to be only partially true.
We have made great progress in producing food, but the social consequences of too many people remain and may be of even greater significance; wars, territorial disputes, conflicts over resources and physical overcrowding.
In a more ominous context, the tragedy of the commons continues to haunt us in matters of pollution. In this case, we are not taking more than our share out of the commons, but putting harmful materials in.
The atmosphere and the oceans may be the last and, ultimately, the most important commons on the planet.
The logic remains the same. Individuals and corporations discharge their waste materials into the commons. Carbon dioxide, the principal driver of climate change continues to pour from every chimney and every tailpipe into the atmospheric commons at no cost to the emitters. No one is willing to accept the responsibility or cost of protecting the commons.
We have become reliant on technology to solve our problems. Hardin was clear that a solution that changes only science is never sufficient. There must be an accompanying adjustment in human values and moral underpinnings.
The message from 1968 is totally relevant today. The context may be different but the commons is still finite. Our continuing pollution of the commons will result in a collapse of the system. This system may be life as we know it.