Math? Art? Those can wait. We need to identify our commons, from pastures to air to radio frequencies, and protect them from abuse.
“I wasn’t looking for Louisville’s biggest jackass, but I guess I found him,” I thought. Here was his Volvo SUV parked exactly halfway across two parking spots outside of Home Depot.
I just needed to return a soap dispenser.
A few years ago, I sat across from a woman at an airport playing a video game at full volume on her phone. The other travelers stared. We gave her the stink eye. Finally, I said, “Hey, what you’re doing is not acceptable. Mute your phone.” Is there a German word for being covered in shame and simultaneously regarding yourself as a hero?
And anyone riding public transportation has likely experienced “manspreading,” the predominantly male practice of sitting on public transit with his legs spread wide apart, crowding other passengers. Transit authorities worldwide have been forced to begin “anti‑manspreading” campaigns. I am not kidding.
These trivial and ultimately inconsequential moments illustrate a nontrivial problem that has far-reaching consequences for us and our planet, a concept described by economists and environmentalists as “the tragedy of the commons.” I’ll call it more simply “jackassery.”
At its core, the theory holds that when humans have a shared resource it tends to be exploited or overused by individuals pursuing their own self-interest. The concept was originally described in an 1833 essay which used overgrazing on common land in England as an example of the problem: individual farmers have incentives to put as many of their cattle on “the commons” as possible. Without regulation, the commons will be abused and everyone will suffer from its abuse when grass no longer grows at all on the commons.
Examples of abuses of the commons are not limited to ecological problems like air pollution, noise pollution and collapsing fisheries. Anyone who has ever found (maybe on the bottom of a shoe?) dog poop in a park has experienced the tragedy of the commons. Our shared spectrum of radio frequencies is a commons. Tax revenue is a commons.
The dilemma of…