Humans are like any other organisms. It’s hard for us to put the greater good ahead of our own particular interests. If you’re at a party with NO FOOD and are ABSOLUTELY STARVING, when suddenly the appetizers are brought around, you may well find yourself politely elbowing other guests on your way to the shrimp-cocktail plate. Or the scallops. Or the cucumber rolls. Or whatever. You’re THAT hungry and will jump in front of pretty much anyone for some food!
Darwin and his intellectual descendants, such as Richard Dawkins (1976), have famously articulated how any and all organisms exist, at least partly, because their ancestors had “self serving” features.
This said … “the selfish gene” is not a comment meant that all organisms, humans included, exist because they are all-out selfish in all details. As has been famously documented by various evolutionary scholars, an all-out-selfish approach to life often is regarded with disgust and rejection by others - we don’t like others who have selfish reputations. And there are good reasons why. ...
The Tragedy of the Commons and Human Psychology
Darwin’s ideas were, in many ways, actually more influenced by ideas in the field of economics than in the field of biology (see Darwin, 1859; Dawkins, 1976; Geher, 2014). After all, an economic product that is “naturally selected” (because more people buy it) is more likely than are competing products to exist into future generations.
So the famous Bostonian “tragedy of the commons,” a classic economic concept, is appropriate to raise in a Darwinian context. The Boston Commons is a large park in the middle of Boston. Years ago, it was the main pasture area for cattle in the city. Grass became scarce as the city grew, and the Commons (meaning the common area) became the designated area for raising farm animals.
Well if you owned a small plot that could only feed three cattle, but your next-door-neighbor owned a similar-sized lot but had FOUR cattle on it, you were in trouble! So you might try to sneak four cattle onto YOUR land! But once YOU had FOUR cattle, your neighbor, another smart Bostonian, would wise-up and get a FIFTH cattle for grazing and milking. Well to stay competitive, you would have to get some more cattle, right ?!
… now imagine THIS scenario happening in all corners of the Boston Commons - over a few short years. Yup, your imagination is correct! Pretty quickly, things fall apart - and everyone is fully out of business! And then the place becomes a public park with swan boats and all!
The Paris Accord
Issues of climate change and of the environment are scary as anything. And this is partly because we know full well that humans will, all things equal, take the easy way out. We will take the short road. We will focus on short-term gains at the cost of long-term losses. Let future generations figure it out! These are our natural tendencies as they are the natural tendencies of any evolved organism. Humans have to LEARN to be other-oriented - humans have to LEARN to be look out for the greater good.
Earlier this week (6/1/2017), the president of the United States signed paperwork to pull our nation OUT of the Paris accord on climate issues. This accord acknowledges the reality of climate change - and provides a mechanism for relatively developed nations to provide resources and guidance to less-developed nations so that these developing nations can take steps toward renewable energy and sustainability.
The Paris Accord is the kind of forward-thinking idea that is designed to get people to put their selfish interests aside on behalf of the greater good.
By signing the Paris Accord, the large majority of developed nations in the world are demonstrating an understanding of the Tragedy of the Commons - an understanding that policies that constrain immediate and short-term gains may well have the capacity to benefit everyone in a long-term and global kind of way.
Donatello Tarumpi and the Boston Commons: A Parable
So this all got me thinking about a small parable that can help put a face to what it means for our president to pull us out of the Paris Accord. I hope you like it.
The year is 1829 and Donatello Tarumpi owns a small plot of land in the Boston Commons. The land was given to him from his father. He didn’t have to work for it.
Anyway, Donatello, a resident of the growing North End, was born in Italy. He was an immigrant - and he and the many other immigrants he lived among saw themselves as building the foundation of these new United States of America. It was an exciting time!
Donatello had four cattle on his plot and he had his three workers milking them pretty much all day long. One day, the guy with the plot next to Donatello purchased some cattle - putting that guy’s plot up to SEVEN cattle! Imagine how much more milk was going to be produced over there!
“Well that’s not fair,” Donatello thought (in an Italian accent)!
So Donatello purchased FOUR more cattle for his plot - now putting his total to EIGHT! Granted, there was not a lot of room for grazing, but Donatello did not come to the United States to lose out to anyone! No, not Donatello Tarumpi! “Tarumpi Primo!” was the motto in his household.
One day, a representative from the city of Boston came around to check things out. He was also an immigrant - a French guy named Pierre. Pierre did not own any of the plots and, thus, only had the interests of the full system and of the city as a whole in his mind.
He was pretty shocked by what he saw!
“These guys are going to have no pastoral land whatsoever in the Commons if they keep this up! We should make some general rules about how many cattle someone can have per a unit of land. Such an accord will help save the entire system - and will ultimately benefit each and every one of these farmers in the long run! Heck, such a system will benefit us ALL in the long run!” he thought (in a French accent).
So Pierre developed an agreement based on this idea and he tried to get the farmers to sign on. The agreement came to be known as Pierre's Accord.
In a very public moment there on the Commons, Donatello Tarumpi refused to sign Pierre’s Accord. After all, Donatello was always the kind of person who only could focus on his own short-term interests. And with his eight cattle and all, things were just fine for him. Tarumpi Primo! Tarumpi Primo!
… and so it goes ...
It’s easy to focus on what’s good for yourself at a cost to what’s good for everyone else. If you want the easy way out, there you go. This said, life happens over time and the easy way out in an immediate capacity may well be debilitating in a longer-term manner.
An amazing feature of human evolution is the fact that we have evolved the capacity to put checks and balances on selfish behavior within our communities (see Wilson, 2007). In a way, modern-day sustainability movements are rooted in this feature of our evolved psychology.
When it comes to the environment, make no mistake: The long-term interests need to be considered primary by all relevant parties. A focus only on the immediate gains of a select few has the potential to lead us back to the Boston Commons centuries ago - a far cry from progress, by anyone’s definition.
If you are interested in contributing toward the greater good and could use some guidance (as we all could), I say this: Always keep the tragedy of the commons in mind.
And if you are trying to make sense out of the whole Paris Accord thing, I suggest that you look at Boston ahead of Paris - and think about the implications that the Tragedy of the Commons has for the welfare of the world today. And for the future that we will hand to our children's children.
Dawkins, R. (1976/1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rankin, D.J., Bargum, K. & Kokko, H. (2007). The tragedy of the commons in evolutionary biology Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 22, 643–65.
Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone. New York: Delacorte Press.Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone. New York: Delacorte Press.