It’s hot. Too darn hot. America is baking, Australia suffered a blistering summer a few months ago, and national heat records are falling in Europe. Why’s it so hot? Well, that depends on who you ask. If you talk to scientists, they’ll tell you it’s our fault. If you talk to anyone else, they’ll either tell you they believe scientists or make up something idiotic on the spot. Are they idiots? No. They’re just weighing personal cost against public benefit.
A lot of choices involve weighing personal cost against public benefit. If I donate to a charity, it will cost me time and money, but I know I’m helping make lives better so I do it. In 2018, my company used our games and books to raise $100,000 for nonprofits that help kids in hospitals, foster children, and girls learning to program and make games. It was a lot of work. But it let us feel great about ourselves and humblebrag like I just did.
Those feelings matter. Game theorists like me often blow off the concept of emotion and assume people are rational actors. That’s not how anything works. We contribute to the common good not just because it’s in our best interests, but because we feel good doing it. We want to help. The fact that it’s voluntary makes it work. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t feel as good about it. I’d do it, because I follow the rules. But it’d feel more like taxes. I pay taxes because I like firefighters, the military, social security, inspections, and other things the government provides. But even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have a choice. If I blow off my taxes, I get a free vacation in a tax-funded jail.
Which brings me to two related but importantly different ecological fields: environmentalism, where we try to stop humanity from killing the world, and immunization, where we try to stop the world from killing humanity. Inside these arenas, we have ceded some of our rights to choose on the basis of emotion. In nearly all of the world, we say, you don’t have to feel good about contributing to the public good. You just have to do it.
But in the USA, we’ve undermined that by adopting a foolish philosophy dubbed by ecologist Garrett Hardin as the tragedy of the commons. That’s a concept from the 1800s about cattle. Picture a common for livestock. If each farmer is allowed to let 10 cows graze there, the land will replenish itself and the common will thrive. Say all the farmers agree to that and no one watches for violations. One farmer might think, “I can let an 11th cow of mine graze, since it will hurt no one.” Another farmer might think, “I can let a 12th cow of mine graze, since it will hurt no one.” As every person tries to squeeze out more benefit from the shared resource, the field is overrun and never grows back. Now we need a new common.
In the tragedy of the commons, the unrestrained self-interest of individuals overwhelms the public good. If a resource like a common is eventually going to be used up, whoever uses it the most benefits the most. The cost/benefit ratio is minuscule to an individual, as the benefits go solely to the user and the costs are spread amongst all users. Eventually, we all pay the cost when the resource is inevitably drained.
The tragedy of the tragedy of the commons is that we’ve known what it is for a couple centuries and we still do this. Regulation slows it down, as does community policing, and informal property rights. But typically, the bad actors will overwhelm the good actors in a fight over the commons. After all, we all want to feed one more cow. It’s just one more cow!
The tragedy of the commons in immunization
Falling prey to the tragedy of the commons puts a giant target on our backs. We see this in immunization, the fortification of the body against disease. We think a lot about disease. Disease doesn’t care what we think. Its job is to kill us. So we try to kill it first, with our superweapon against contagions: herd immunity. Here’s how that works, starring our old foe measles.
Left alone, measles would catch hold everywhere, because nine out of ten non-immune people exposed to the virus catch it. That’s a brutal transference rate. Without herd immunity, if any child catches it, many more will. Since we can’t cure the virus, we must destroy its opportunity to transmit itself. The more people that are vaccinated against measles, the slower the disease can spread. Susceptible children can’t easily meet contagious children if most children are immune.
So we vaccinate as many children as possible and keep the disease in check. Those who can’t be vaccinated yet, such as infants and pregnant women, are insulated by the herd. This is how we eradicated smallpox and polio. If we get 90–95% immunity, we can stop a disease from killing anyone.
Measles aren’t cute. No one will be sad if we eradicate it from the earth. In Africa and Asia, 20 million people contract measles a year. Global efforts have reduced the death rate to about 100,000 people a year. That’s a lot, but it’s not the 2.6 million people who died of measles in 1980. This is all good, but we should be aware how good we have it here at home.
We chose to stay on this side of the tipping point. We eliminated measles in the United States in 2000, and from the Americas in 2002. The only cases for a decade and a half came imported from the eastern hemisphere, and then only a handful. An entire hemisphere came together and said no. We killed measles dead from Canada to Chile. Take that, measles.
In 2017, a case of measles arose in Maine, the first in 20 years. In 2018, 500 Oregonians were exposed to the virus; over 40 were not immune. 200 people in Brooklyn caught the disease this past winter. More than 50 people got it in my home of Washington state this year. A cruise ship of Scientologists got marooned in the Caribbean when someone got measles.
You know why. Measles didn’t get stronger. People just got more obstinate. The scourge of vaccine hesitancy led science-impaired parents to deny their children immunization. Anti-vaxxers like Donald Trump dumped so much toxic fear into the water supply that just enough children were left unimmunized. Finding a new foothold built on a foundation of willful negligence, measles roared back strong. And we just let it do so.
Some of us can’t handle that. Legislatures like ours in Washington are now banning philosophical exemptions from vaccinations. We’ll see if that takes hold. We’ve been telling people that their beliefs don’t exempt them from needing to perform abortions and marry gay couples, and some of them got real het up about it in 2016 and gave us a Trump sandwich. But if we don’t find some backbone, we’re just gonna let measles run wild again.
The tragedy of this particular common is that immunization only works if it’s mandatory, but some are allowed to think it’s optional. They are actively killing their fellow citizens. Thankfully, we’re still on the edge of holding the line against communicable disease. The good news: Amid the measles outbreak, Trump changed his tune, saying “They have to get the shots.” If Trump can change, maybe everyone can change. Maybe. Hold the line.
The tragedy of the commons in environmentalism
We are not even close to the line when it comes to the environment. We’re losing, badly. With the extinction of thousands of species—maybe including us—on the line, we are very bad at mandating participation in keeping the planet healthy.
It’s easy to understand the tragedy of the commons when it comes to big polluters. The reason we have laws about how much toxins companies can dump into waterways is that on their own, companies will fall prey to the commons problem and dump way too much. Of course, this only works if we enforce the laws and … oh, it’s time to talk about the Lovecraftian horror that is Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Despite being booted out due to metastasizing scandals, Scott Pruitt remains the most successful member of Trump’s cabinet, at least in terms of workload. As the worst president possible, Trump’s goal was to appoint the worst people possible to head every agency, and he got a doozy in Pruitt. The self-described “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,”
Pruitt took control of that organization and gutted it to the best of his ability. He cut the number of inspections the EPA made in half. Fines collected from polluters dropped to their lowest levels since 1994, from $3 billion in 2017 to $88 million in 2018. The minimum number of Criminal Enforcement Division agents required by the U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990 is 200. There are now 130.
Pruitt and his successor, coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, have kneecapped the EPA, but that’s no reason to despair. After all, international agreements we signed should… nope, we threw those away too. The Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, so our polluters are emboldened to set our sky afire again. We’re like a smoker who quit for twenty years, got a brutal divorce, and just re-embraced a three-pack habit. It’ll make us look cool for a while, I guess, till we can’t breathe again.
Once again we can look to the tragedy of the commons. We let an insidious lie take hold among the GOP-inclined among us: that preventing climate change costs jobs. Sure, it might cost some of our 175,000 coal jobs. But it doesn’t cost jobs on a larger scale. You want 24 million new jobs? Embrace a green economy. That’s what the United Nations says, anyway. Of course, if you don’t believe in international accords, you’re not going to believe the United Nations. That’s why Trump torpedoed our relationship with the UN.
Is it reasonable to distrust international accords? On a global scale, no. The Paris Agreement isn’t exactly controversial anywhere else. It’s one of the few international agreements that has complete international agreement. Here’s a list of countries that aren’t on board with the plan to cut emissions.
Across the world, we’re seeing the rise of people who oppose common sense steps to save the environment. Trump and UK demagogue Boris Johnson are lost causes; we can only hope that Johnson is so occupied with pulling the UK out of Europe that he doesn’t get around to pulling the UK out of the Paris Accords. Australia prime minister Scott Morrison was propped up by the collapse of Malcolm Turnbull’s aggressive climate change plan. France’s Emmanuel Macron faces a wave of “yellow vest” protests that could flip the nation to the far right. This isn’t good for the world.
It’s a lot gloom and doom, but it’s not all gloom and doom. Predictably, most of the excess carbon pumped into the air is from cities. Organizations like C40, a group of nearly a hundred of the world’s biggest cities, are watching global leadership wither in its responsibilities, and are taking up the charge. After all, they’re the ones that suffer when destabilized weather burns out transformers, floods urban areas, and increases snow removal costs. With the EPA broken beyond repair, it’s the cities that will hold the line.
The tragedy of the commons in your life
But it’s easy to get outraged about what governments aren’t doing to stop pollution, and heartened by cities’ attempts to step up. It’s a lot harder to figure out what you should be doing. For that, I want to talk about sporks.
In the 1970s, the plastic spork—the intensely utile portmanteau of spoon and fork—became a fast food staple. With nearly every takeout meal, a plastic-wrapped spork was released into the environment. Now, you have silverware. You don’t need a spork. But think about the times you’ve remembered to tell the server not to include that spork with your food. Think about how often you remembered to do that on an airplane. Now think about it for every single-use object you’ve touched that’s made of plastic. You get overwhelmed fast. Society is built to hand you plastic, and you can’t easily get away from it.
The spork is the symbol of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a 1.4 million square kilometer area of plastic-infused water. There are 87,000 tons of plastic in the Patch, made up of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. Microplastics (pieces under 5mm) account for 94% of the pieces, but make up only 8% of the mass; more than 75% of the mass is large solids, called macroplastics. Every plastic bag, every water bottle, every spork you threw away might have made it into this poisonous deathtrap the size of six Frances.
We made this giant patch in only 50 years, basically since the spork became popular. Every part of the lifecycle of plastic is poisonous. As soon as it gets into the ocean, it starts to kill marine animals. Nearly half of the world’s sea turtles and basically all of its marine birds have plastics in their stomachs. You know how when you go fishing, you sometimes catch a plastic bottle instead? Well, by 2050, there will be as much plastic in the ocean as fish.
How do you stop that? By stopping using plastic and convincing everyone you know to do the same. But of course that’s incredibly difficult to do, and you have to do it while everyone else is consuming and disposing of plastic at a prodigious rate. It’s nearly impossible to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
I admit I set you up there. I started talking about old-timey farmers ruining the world, but you’re not an old-timey farmer. Then I talked about anti-vaxxers ruining the world, but you’re (probably) not an anti-vaxxer. Then I talked about big polluters and big nations ruining the world, but you’re not that big. Then I got to plastic, and you realized you’re as vulnerable to the tragedy of the commons as all those forces you just blamed.
You’re not special in that regard. I’m not special either. It’s okay. That’s why the choice has to be taken away from us. When it comes to saving the world and saving ourselves, we either all have to be in it together or we’re not going to hold the line at all.
The rescuing of the commons
And so it’s left to lawmakers: The European parliament banned single-use plastic by a vote of 571–53 last year, and hopes to see its ban go in effect by 2021. Canada aims to ban single-use plastic by 2021, and India by 2022. Great Britain has a similar measure going forward. In the US, we haven’t quite gotten there, but Trump signed a bill that punishes ocean plastic polluters, though he seemed to believe that other nations were fully at fault. (Hint: When it comes to damaging the environment, we’re always at fault.)
Maine banned styrofoam containers, and similar bills are underway in Vermont, Colorado, Oregon and New Jersey. Many US jurisdictions have banned plastic straws, starting in my home city of Seattle and moving to New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Here, Trump is Trump, selling Trump straws at $15 a pack to enrage the liberals. But he’s going to lose this fight, since all the major corporations are backing off from plastic straws—Disney, McDonald’s, Starbucks, American Airlines, Hyatt, Hilton, and so on. Even Trump’s own Vegas hotel is buying paper straws, though predictably it’s late paying for them. No matter. When no restaurants will give you plastic straws, you’ll have to bring your own. Who’s gonna do that? Some MAGA-heads and no one else.
On a federal level, it’s going to take some time, if it gets there at all. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s proposed Green New Deal focuses on replacement of fossil fuels and other non-renewables, cleanup of toxic sites, and reduction of inequality—all great things. But what it doesn’t do is talk about restriction of choice. Now, in the Congress, the Green New Deal is probably going nowhere. But even if it does go somewhere, it’s not going to actually work unless it enforces action on a person-by-person level. Because when you talk about climate change, you must start by accepting that we are at fault. It’s not other people. It’s us.
There are limits to this approach, of course. Here I’m heading back to the commons not to talk about the farmers but instead to talk about the cows. Because we eat a lot of meat — and I count among the most inveterate of meat-eaters — we’ve added 40% of the methane to the atmosphere. The greenhouse gas methane is highly effective at trapping heat, so it contributes to global warming. The massive increase in livestock since the Industrial Revolution has poisoned our air. That’s not sustainable. But let’s be real: we’re not going to let governments ban the eating of meat. So we have to focus on what we can reasonably control.
The tragedy of the commons is that we are all commoners. But therein lies our strength as well. We can accept that it isn’t just the big polluters and the bad Republicans who are responsible for the problem. We can support each other as equals. When we have to make difficult changes in our lifestyles, we can console each other by knowing we’re saving our neighbors and the world. We just need to imagine a better world, free of garbage patches and measles outbreaks. We can get there if we just give up control of our worst impulses. I’m willing to commit. Are you?
Bonus game: Tragedy of the Commons
To show this concept in action, my company is publishing a PDF of a new digital game by James Youngman called Tragedy of the Commons, as part of our charity-focused Humble Bundle of puzzles and puzzle games. (Click the link to get this game and a lot more.) In the game, you try to choose parts of the common no one else wants to use, but if you send your cows to a place others want to go, you destroy that part of the common. Here’s what its rules and one of its many commons cards looks like.
Spoiler: If you play that game with a bunch of people, you’re going to lose a lot of points. Head over to the Humble Bundle and try it out.
This is the 40th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, and Oregon’s standoff. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.