Michael A. Lebowitz: The tragedy of the commons, the Pope, and the system

There’s an old argument that common property inevitably leads to exhaustion of resources.

In the parable of “the tragedy of the commons”, the story is told that, given the absence of private property, everyone had an incentive to graze his own animals on the common fields without limit with the result that overgrazing destroyed the land. No matter that, historically, individual communities have always found ways to manage their common property; nevertheless, the story continues to be told. There is, after all, a underlying lesson. The tragedy of the commons occurs in a particular finite space, when there are separate and indifferent self-seeking actors, when there is no communal consensus as to how to manage the commons and where, accordingly, self-seeking actors take whatever they can from the commons.

Now, there is a sobering thought if we have paid any attention to the problem of climate change. For, as Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Laudati Si, “On Care for our Common Home”, stresses, “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” and is “linked to many of the essential conditions for human life” (23). Not only, however, are we destroying those conditions, the Encyclical argues, but, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (21).


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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission