The Tragedy of the Commons and the Gift Economy

Charles Eisenstein
Charles Eisenstein

Readers of this magazine and my online column know I’m not a gloom-and-doom kind of guy. I lose plenty of sleep fretting over the kind of world we’re leaving our kids, but I figure the mainstream media does a good enough job both scaring and depressing people that I don’t need to add my voice to that.

Instead, I like to come to the table with solutions.

Why? It’s not just that I’m generally upbeat; instead, it’s because I know that bad news about the environment (and most other things) stops people, literally freezing them from doing anything about what are presented as almost unsolvable problems.

I call it “turtling” — you know, pulling your head inside your shell so it doesn’t get lopped off.

Give people enough bad news about our environmental problems and instead of sending them to the barricades to demand change, the news will trigger them to focus on their own small horizons, protect their own families and prepare to survive whatever horrible thing awaits them.

We’re all too familiar with how the news stories and pictures from endless wars and civil wars in places from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Egypt to Syria overwhelm our senses, and make us simply think we’re lucky to not be “over there.” (Some would argue the news is created to produce precisely this effect, and keep us docile.)

But there is no “over there” with environmental issues, at least not when they reach the global scale. The threat to, say, the Amazon rainforest — the lungs of the Earth — is a threat to the atmosphere we all share, and biodiversity we all wish to continue. And no one wants to be around to see the last tiger shot in the wild, the last shark fished, the last mountain gorilla murdered for its bush meat, or to make an ashtray from its hand.

Oops! There I go sounding negative. I had to say something to set up the solutions-oriented story I wish to share, which is a wonderful short film (just 12 minutes, promise!) that paints a wonderful picture of an alternative future we can create for ourselves. It’s called Sacred Economics and you can watch the short film here:

The film is based on a book with the same title by Charles Eisenstein that you can read for free on the same website, unless you want to buy it for your Kindle or whatnot (as I plan to do).

I offer this web link in place of a longer essay I was planning to write about the Tragedy of the Commons that I’ll get to another time. (Wikipedia has an erudite entry on that subject here:

I’ll only mention in passing that the Tragedy of the Commons was economist Garrett Hardin’s term in a 1968 paper published in the journal Science for the phenomenon wherein different competitors degrade or destroy a shared resource as they compete with one another to derive the greatest benefit from it. A common illustration is a large grasslands (or “commons”) on which anyone may graze their sheep. Because no one owns the commons, it’s in everyone’s interest to graze as many of their sheep as possible before competitors exploit the resource, with the end result that everyone becomes impoverished when there’s little or no grass left.

There are many other kinds of commons including the ocean that can become depleted with overfishing, or a rainforest that can be cut down by competing interests for its timber, oil & gas, mining resources or conversion into farmland. Even the internet is a kind of commons that becomes “polluted” by such things as email spam.

Solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons usually involve government regulation and oversight, or various privatization schemes (in which it’s assumed that private owners will have an interest in maintaining the productivity of the resource). Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics presents an interesting alternative solution, which is that the money economy (tied to property, ownership and growth) needs replacement with what he calls the “gift economy” (derived from concepts that nature’s bounty is shared).

Eisenstein does a better job than I can explaining his ideas in both his film and the more detailed book. Again, you can access both here:


NOTE: The Amazon Rainforest as a Commons

I invite those who wish to deepen their understanding of environmental crises in terms of the Tragedy of the Commons to watch this short appeal by Chief Raoni to the leaders of all nations to “Change Your Mind!” — Raoni is chief of an Amazon tribe whose lands are under threat from hydroelectric dams planned by the Brazilian government. His appeal is very moving:

Another loosely related topic is the plan recently authorized by the government of Peru over the objections of the United Nations and thousands of petitioners to go ahead with the so-called Camisea oil & gas project, which will be ruinous to indigenous tribes, some of whom remain uncontacted. (In addition to Peru’s history of allowing vast amounts of environmental contamination from oil drilling, it’s widely understood that many or most of certain tribes will be wiped out from contact with oil industry workers due to disease.) Here are two websites that deal with the issue:


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