Tragedy of the Commons: Coming to a City Near You?

Posted on December 4, 2014

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Kitty Wooley is the founder of Senior Fellows and Friends. Previous articles include: A Party Sampler of Government Resources and We Are the Government with Kitty Wooley.

Tragedy of the Commons: Coming to a City Near You?


by Kitty WooleyLinkedIn and Twitter

This morning’s New York Times highlighted a species of dilemma that neighbors and all levels of government around the world are facing – avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons. WiseGeek describes this concept in plain English as follows:

At its core, the Tragedy of the Commons demonstrates that, in a situation where the consequences of a course of action are shared among a collective, while the benefits are reaped by an individual or single group within the collective, people will tend to take actions that in the long term are detrimental to the group as a whole. This is a tragedy because, in seeking their own personal gain, the members of the group actually ultimately hurt themselves.

Although the article was focused on a prosperous residential district in Southern California whose water use is nearly five times the area’s average (Where Grass is Greener, a Push to Share Drought’s Burden), it could easily be talking about other public resources, or even risks shared by the public, such as fire risk.  These are issues that cannot be addressed fully by means of local ordinance alone.  I’ve begun asking myself what constructive approaches a city, county, or township can use to convince local residents to adopt solutions that enable everyone to escape short-term or long-term, collective disaster.  Here are a few.

imagesDiscussion and Education can be conducted via print and social media, tours, coffees, and town hall meetings, using questions such as the following:

  • Do residents understand why things need to change – what’s at stake and what are the likely consequences of maintaining the current trajectory?
  • Are the pros and cons of alternate courses of action, and limiting factors, clearly and honestly explained and supported by relevant data and anecdote where available?
  • Have residents been invited to weigh in on alternatives?  Have their facts, opinions, and feelings been respectfully heard?
  • Once a direction has been set, do the actions that must be taken distribute the pain evenly and are they explained clearly in multiple formats?
  • Is it possible to get ahead of a looming issue?  For example, the Colorado Springs Xeriscape Demonstration Garden has long demonstrated plant alternatives for landscapers and gardeners that are suited to the high desert climate and use less water.

Alternate Day of Week watering can be implemented during drought years. For example, if my street address ends in an even number, I water only on Monday – Wednesday – Friday.  If it ends in an odd number, I water only on Tuesday – Thursday – Saturday.

Differential Pricing can be implemented based on how much water is being used. For example, my bill this month has three components, a service charge of $0.52 per day and a Block 1 commodity charge for the first 999 cubic feet used x $0.0349/cu.ft. and a Block 2 commodity charge for an additional 6 cubic feet x $0.0654/cu.ft.

downloadFocus Groups can be convened to find out how residents are thinking about critical issues, what their experience has been, and what communication they would find most effective. For example, the Colorado Springs Fire Department’s Wildfire Mitigation Team and two university researchers recently convened residents from neighborhoods that straddle the “urban-wilderness interface” in order to fine-tune a fire mitigation survey to be administered elsewhere in the state next year.  This is a quintessential commons issue.

5Since two disastrous fires, Waldo Canyon and Black Forest, resulted in two deaths and the loss of over 850 homes in the past three years, meeting participants were highly engaged and both the research team and CSFD were able to learn how to make their messaging even more compelling.  A basic fire mitigation issue is the willingness of adjacent property owners to (1) remove “ladder fuel” that leads fire up to a tree’s crown, burns it down, and jumps to nearby crowns, (2) cut down trees and shrubs so close to homes and other structures that they make them too hard to defend, and (3) thin trees and brush in open land to slow down the wildfire’s spread.

What do you think about the above?  I’ve never worked in local government; does anything strike you as naïve?  Do some commons issues resonate more deeply than others?  Do you think situations involving resource depletion call for different strategies than situations involving risk of loss?  How do things go in your neck of the woods?

Supplemental Reading

What is the Tragedy of the Commons?

¡Viva la Acequia!

Peter Kollock on Social Dilemmas

The Electronic Hallway – public administration case studies

Nobel Prize Lecture by Elinor Ostrom

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