Overcoming the Tragedy of the Commons

I recently moved from my home country of the Netherlands, a land filled with dikes and dams to Boulder, Colorado, an area considered the high desert where average yearly precipitation is normally less than 20 inches. I thought my days of filling sandbags were over. Yet within the first week of my arrival to this picturesque town in the Rockies over 14 inches of rain fell, unleashing flash floods, destroying homes, leading to a yet unknown number of fatalities, and causing widespread devastation.

It was a terrible tragedy caused by an extreme weather event, made worse by the wildfires that had plagued the area earlier this year. However, in the midst of the disaster I saw a community band together to overcome that tragedy. People rolled up their sleeves, dug ditches together to divert the water, helped each other with pumping, sandbagging and clean up, and readily worked together to make their neighborhood safe again.

It reminds me of the long time argument of economists that it is hard for people to come together for the common good. The “tragedy of the commons,” a term described by economists in the early 19th century and popularized by scientist Garrett Hardin in 1968, describes what can happen when individuals act in their own best self-interests and ignore what’s best for the group. It is often used to explain the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long-term best interests.

Yet in disaster after disaster, humans have proved they are ready to work together to address a challenge for the common good. When people realize there is an imminent threat, they move beyond individualistic thinking and band together to collectively address the threat they face. We have seen that over and over, from 9/11 to the tsunami in Asia, from the big water disaster in the Netherlands in 1953 to the outpouring of support after the Haiti earthquake. And I saw it happen first-hand in my new hometown of Boulder, Colorado.

While my house was in no danger, my new neighbors weren’t so fortunate. As we filled sandbag after sandbag trying to protect threatened homes, I realized that we can overcome common challenges by working together.

“There was a calm that was unbelievable,” Jamestown resident Leyla Jacobs told the Denver Post. “You’d meet people just walking around trying to help. You could not tell the people who had just lost everything from the people like us, who were fine.”

It was also evident by the multiple listings on Craigslist in the days during and after the flood:

“Teacher available to help with cleanup, child care, running errands until school starts back up on Wednesday.”

“If you have a crawlspace or basement that is flooded, I have an extra submergible pump in my garage here and a fan to help finish the drying.”

“Willing to take in a displaced family, single parent, couple or person. Friendly dogs ok!”

Climate change is just such a tragedy of the commons. As individuals, corporations, communities, and even countries, act in their own best self-interests, greenhouse gas emissions rise and climate change worsens. Yet as the disastrous flooding in Boulder has shown, tragedies can be overcome. The challenge is making people see climate change as the imminent threat it is, in order for people to band together to collectively address the issue. It was a wonderful lesson from my new home town.