About two years ago, I had to read a paper called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The subject of the paper was the distribution of all the earth’s resources amongst the earth’s population.
In medieval Europe and colonial America, every town or village used to have a commons, or a large green space at the center of the town. The commons was open for anyone to use; frequently, shepherds would bring their sheep or cattle to graze there. The proposition of the paper was that the commons system worked great so long as everyone limited their use of it to the grazing of just a few sheep or cattle.
Eventually, however, someone would realize that if they brought one more sheep than all of their neighbors, they could make extra money off of that one extra sheep at the expense of everyone else that used the commons. Being a good businessman, this person would bring his extra sheep. Then other shepherds would see what he was doing and start bringing extra sheep of their own, so they wouldn’t get cut out of business.
Eventually, there would be too many sheep for the commons to support, so all of the sheep would starve and all of the people would be left bickering with one another when they had nothing left. And that’s the tragedy of the commons.
In many ways, we can see this tragedy playing out here and now. The problem with the commons is that the miniscule amount of land taken by a single extra sheep seems really small in comparison with the rest of the commons. A few extra tons of pollution dumped into the water don’t seem like they will hurt anybody; only after all of it accumulates over time do we see the problem.
The chemicals that we produce to make stuff cheaper are really harming the world around us, and in turn are harming ourselves. These chemicals are elevating cancer rates and healthcare costs well beyond what they should be if all of the “safe” products that we release into the environment were actually benign.
Still, the physical losses we suffer as a result of the greed that makes people dump pollutants or graze extra sheep at the commons pale in comparison to the social losses that result. Whether or not the shepherd sees the results of his actions, his profiting from a minor loss to everyone else destroys the community that was in the system before.
As soon as everyone else realizes what is going on, they begin to look after their own self-interest and protect what they already have. Home-security systems go up, children aren’t allowed to play outside anymore, and people become much less willing to talk to each other. In short, we lose all of the intangible relationships that bring value to our everyday existence. Admittedly, the solution to this problem is probably very complex, but it seems like a few simple changes would greatly help the situation.
When Jesus was walking around, He taught people to care more about each other than about what they owned. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.” His point was that loving the person that was suing you was more important than the stuff that you had, even if it essentially meant letting him rob you. He also said, “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”
That’s hard. Especially downtown, that can be really hard. Venturing out into the city practically invites being asked for money, yet in reality, no matter who asks you for money and no matter what they end up doing with it, 99 times out of 100 it is in fact better to just go ahead and give it.
I know there are any number of potentially horrible things that people could do with money in their hands, but having compassion on someone is more important than withholding it, especially when our only motivation for not giving is simply that we don’t want to. It is not worth holding back from everyone just because a few, or even because a majority, are trying to deceive you. Loving one another is worth more than that.
It is only by trusting people that the commons can ever be rebuilt. Even if the person who is robbing you blind doesn’t understand why you are giving what you have freely to them, they may understand the second time. And even if they never understand, someone else may understand and cut back on the number of extra sheep they send out to the commons so that everyone else can raise their sheep. I don’t know how much being nice to people will help, but it seems like a good way to start. And the sheep will thank you, too.