June, 19, 2017

What is a social good? And what  happens when people are sharing a resource, a social good , but are motivated by self interest ? What happens, is a tragedy writes Garrett Hardin, in his very influential article in Science Magazine in 1968.

If for example, we all start fishing as much as possible because of our own self interest, eventually we will destroy  the species of fish that we are trying to use as a resource. And, the most dramatic resource on our horizon that we have been destroying in this way is the atmosphere. That is by dumping carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere in order to pursue self-interest, we are destroying the very resource that keep us, keeps us alive.

This is why he calls it a tragedy. As  William Foster Lloyd wrote:  

The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. The essence of tragedy resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.

The solemnity of the remorseless working of things , doesn’t it sounds so much like the rhetoric we hear around climate change today?  There's nothing we can do about it, there's no chance of changing, because,  even if I change in my country, let's say the United States, another country is dumping all kinds of carbon in it and profiting and developing from it. Developing countries say to the developed world, well you have been dumping stuff into the atmosphere for a hundred years. Now you want us to control it when we need to dump stuff into the atmosphere to have economic development. While everyone else is profiting. Nobody wants to be the fool who stops economic development in order to preserve the atmosphere if everybody else is dumping into the atmosphere anyway. This is the remorseless working of things that destroys the very resources that we are trying to exploit. And Hardin thought that remorseless working of things makes for a tragedy.

The climate isn't really changing. Poverty isn't getting worse because of demog-, population growth. We deny these things because it's easier to continue going along with our self interests, or what seems to be our self interest than to recognize a long term problem. Natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial.

Isn't that interesting? The individual,  benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, suffers.  Why should I do something about poverty, when all these other people aren't doing anything about poverty? Why should I do something about healthcare when other people are not, doing something about healthcare for the poor? As an individual, it looks like I'm profiting.


We all have to realize that it's  our self interest to preserve our planet and what is on it  for the future. We're seeing into the future, seeing into the future actually helps us be more productive. And according to Hobbes, all the great philosophers of both the classical Greece and Rome, of the Arab world, of the Christian Middle Ages all thought that , that reason was the key to human harmony. 

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