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Issue #31 - Tragedy of the Commons🐄

Hello everyone! I've taken a little break over the past few months, but I've been drawn back to share
Mental Models Weekly
Issue #31 - Tragedy of the Commons🐄
By Mental Models Weekly • Issue #31 • View online
Hello everyone! I’ve taken a little break over the past few months, but I’ve been drawn back to share some mental models that have come to mind during this new era of pandemic.
This week I’m covering the tragedy of the commons which comes from the discipline of economics.

What is the Tragedy of the Commons?
The tragedy of the commons is a concept that was popularized in a 1968 article by Garrett Hardin.
He wrote about a patch of unregulated land - a “commons” - where farmers bring their herds to graze. If one of the farmers decides to add an extra animal to their herd they will benefit. However if all the farmers were to do the same thing, the land will become overgrazed and depleted, and everyone will suffer the loss of the shared resource - the commons. As Hardin puts it:
 Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.
Why is this interesting?
The current trend of panic-buying of goods such as cleaning supplies reminds me of the tragedy of the commons. There is depletion of community disease protection as a subset of consumers panic-buy and hoard cleaning products for themselves. If your neighbor has a stockpile of hand sanitizer, and you can’t access any, the overall community disease protection is depleted.
The example of hospital visits is also interesting. If someone goes to the hospital with mild symptoms instead of self quarantining, it serves their self interest. However if the hospital system is near capacity it depletes the common resource of emergency care.
Photo by Daniel Seßler
Photo by Daniel Seßler
Want to go deeper?
🔖 The original tragedy of the commons article by Garrett Hardin.
🔖 This post goes into detail on MERS-CoV and the tragedy of the commons.
🧠 Another related mental model is individualism vs collectivism. In some cultures the individual is more of a focus, but in other cultures it’s the group (or “collective”). This is also a very interesting model to keep in mind in a pandemic era, where cooperation is crucial. I probably won’t cover it separately so if you want to go deeper here’s a nice write up on Individualism, and here’s one on Collectivism, and here’s a great table for a quick summary of both.
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