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The Tragedy of the Commons...and of the Bunnies
Eleanor Lang, 4 Sep 07
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If you've ever taken a class in economics, the environment or philosophy, you've probably heard the term "the tragedy of the commons." In its simplest form, this describes what happens when too many people graze their cattle on the same piece of public land, or too many people fish in the same place, or even when too many people try to park on the same public street: a limited common resource is quickly depleted. In its more complex form, the tragedy of the commons describes what occurs when people fail to think about long-term sustainability, and privilege individual needs over the needs of the whole community.

Oxford economist William Forster Lloyd first evoked the idea in an 1833 publication about population; it was popularized in a still-influential essay titled "The Tragedy of the Commons," by ecologist Garret Hardin in 1968. But this struggle to rationalize short term and long-term objectives, and to codify the relationship between infinite demands for a finite resource, goes way back: in the fourth century BC, Aristotle addressed the issue of limited common resources.

So, if Big Minds have struggled to sell people on this concept for centuries, how is a 10th grader going to get it...never mind your friend who wants to buy a Hummer and tells you that "my one car won't make a difference to global warming"? You could give them books and essays to read. Or you could fire up your computer and play a game.

The Tragedy of the Bunnies is one of a half a dozen games on the excellent Liberty Arcade site
designed to illustrate social science fundamentals. All these games are quick (taking no more than 10 minutes to play), easy, free and Flash; there is nothing to buy or download, and they won't eat your system resources. They excel more as teaching tools than as games qua games, but because they're well designed and fun, they're more likely to make a point, and do it memorably, than any assortment of essays, books and articles from dusty philosophers and economists.

The Tragedy of the Bunnies is full of fun, bouncy sounds. You're a bunny merchant and make your living by selling cute bunnies as pets to children (this game does not address or acknowledge the small-animal food sources of much of the world). In the first of two rounds, you score points by selling bunnies, which you do by clicking on them. Sell them all and you have lots of money, but no bunnies to make more bunnies in the second round. Leave some, and being as frisky and fertile as, well, bunnies, their population increases by a factor of three. And since this is about the tragedy of the commons, the catch is that you are competing against other bunny merchants, both for sales and land use.

There are two versions of the game, a public and a privatized version. As the name might imply, Liberty Arcade has a Libertarian bias and the private game is designed to have significantly better results.

I need to tell you that I'm not an economist, a biologist or an urban planner. I work in the games industry, and that really doesn't qualify me to judge if privatization is the answer to the Tragedy of the Commons. Certainly, I can see how in some situations it's a problematic approach, but that doesn't mean that individual actions (as opposed to government action) cannot also be at least part of a solution. You can make your own decisions on how to best to protect our endangered common resources via your personal economic clout, that is, each time you open your wallet. For example, when buying fish, you can use the Monterey Bay Aquarium's handy pocket guide to purchasing fish to guide you, a person with the short-term goal of cooking dinner, to factor in the long-term goal of protecting our oceanic food supplies. Or you can put your charitable dollars towards an effort that promotes solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons, such as Heifer International. This group, a personal favorite, gives livestock animals to impoverished people and communities around the world while also teaching sustainable animal husbandry: recipients must agree not to eat the animals before they have increased the their number to a certain point, and to give some animal offspring to their neighbors. (And yes: bunnies, er, rabbits are some of the food animals the group provides.)

Whatever your feelings about public versus private interventions, playing The Tragedy of the Bunnies may increase your awareness of the dynamics of infinite demand on our common, finite resources. And it'll do so in a way that is guaranteed to provide ten minutes of fun.

Image: "Bunnies at the Jogjakarta bird market." Credit: flickr/chrissam42

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Comments

Oops! did you see that agenda just sneak in through the door?

Actually, the name libertyarcade almost gives it away. I have to say, I'm not very impressed by the game - it isn't very captivating, and its too educational. So clearly pushing a point I doubt anyone would bother playing it for real. On the other hand, the 'moral' of the game is dubious. It promotes one, and only one, interpretation of the tragedy of the commons: the liberterian one.

As for posing the problem, all the game says is: 'if everyone harvests a common resource unrestricted it is depleted'. I don't need to waste 10 minutes on an interactive flash animation to get that. A simple text would do. As for the 'moral', well, extreme privatization is one way to go - but how exactly does that work for water? air? sunlight? carbon? healthcare? The story only works if a) there is no communication between agents b) resources are easy to distribute fairly and c) everyone obeys property laws. Umm.

So, what do we have here? A simplistic game to promote a simplistic philosophy? Sorry. Not convinced. How about an alternative game: allow players to communicate and negotiate an agreement for sustainable shared use of common resources. Allow them to negotiate mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing these agreements. Consider whether use-rights should be tradeable.


By the way, have a look at: http://www.gamesforchange.org/


Posted by: Yishay Mor on 4 Sep 07

I tend to agree with the first commentor,. Not much of a game,. well not a 'game' at all. It is a simple propaganda tool, that pushes the crazy notion of liberterianism that private ownership of everything some how creates liberty for all. They always forget to mention how I, or any one else, can ever come to own some of the land while it is already claimed by giant global corporations? Or how these same corporations are going to police themselves with regard to the environment or workers rights with the government removed as they aim to do,. ask Ron Paul! We can all plainly see the corporations actively work to the opposite ends. Anarcho-capitalism is simply not a game, it is a system of elite capitalist rule; Corporate fudalism.


Posted by: jph wacheski on 5 Sep 07

I tend to agree with the first commentor,. Not much of a game,. well not a 'game' at all. It is a simple propaganda tool, that pushes the crazy notion of liberterianism that private ownership of everything some how creates liberty for all. They always forget to mention how I, or any one else, can ever come to own some of the land while it is already claimed by giant global corporations? Or how these same corporations are going to police themselves with regard to the environment or workers rights with the government removed as they aim to do,. Ask Ron Paul! We can all plainly see the corporations actively work to the opposite ends. Anarcho-capitalism is simply not a game, it is a system of elite capitalist rule; Corporate fudalism.


Posted by: jph wacheski on 5 Sep 07

The problem is that Hardin's notion of the 'tragedy of the commons' is based on his assumption that everyone involved in the commons operates simply to maximize profit. Thus the common gets overused and becomes barren and won't sustain anything anymore. Of course, people are not simply profit-seeking roombas. Some will try to take over the commons. Others will act to restrain them and engage in wise use. Others still will want to kill the people who are depleting the land. And, in the end, a negotiated solution is possible. There have been quite a number of recent studies of places where people have managed a common resource with great effectiveness (the lobstermen of Maine, various grazing tribes in Africa, fishermen in the Amazon, and more).

And don't forget, the famous commons of England didn't disappear because the locals over-grazed them. They disappeared because Parliament, under pressure from the aristocrats, passed the laws of enclosure, which allowed the commons to be privatized. And, sometimes, developed upon and wiped out.


Posted by: robert neuiwrth on 8 Sep 07

Peter Barnes' Capitalism 3.0 provides a progressive-friendly version of property rights solutions to tragedy of the commons problems based on the concept of "environmental trusts." His proposed Sky Trust to address climate change is his most famous example, but in Capitalism 3.0 he generalizes the solution to any commons.

Elinor Ostrom's work, based on the study of dozens of real world examples, show exactly the circumstances under which this is solution works: "allow players to communicate and negotiate an agreement for sustainable shared use of common resources. Allow them to negotiate mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing these agreements." There are some situations in which this is a valid solution and many not. For those situations in which Ostrom solutions don't work, property rights solutions, Barnes' version included, are often the most effective means of preserving a commons sustainably.


Posted by: Michael Strong on 14 Sep 07



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