MathBench > Environmental Science

Tragedy of the Commons

Why guilt (conscience) is bad policy

Calls to conscience can certainly help put an issue in the public consciousness and build momentum for action. But by themselves, they make bad policy.

Why? Because a call to conscience penalizes the very people who are trying the hardest to do the right thing, while rewarding people who pursue their self-interest.

e-waste recyclingLet's take the example of e-waste. A call to conscience might be a poster campaign to convince students to recycle their computers responsibly. What happens? Some students (who are probably environmentally minded to begin with) heed the call and spend the extra $20 or $40 to have their e-waste recycled. Meanwhile other students (who are probably not environmentally minded) roll their eyes and toss the old printer / computer / monitor / cellphone out in the kitchen trash. So, those students who care the most end up paying money, while those who don't care keep polluting.

"When we use the word [conscience] in the absence of substantial sanctions are we not trying to browbeat a free man in a commons into acting against his own interest? ... It is an attempt to get something for nothing."

In the extreme case, those people with “conscience” cannot compete against the conscience-less. How does that work? Let's go to the goat-herding example. As more and more goats get added to the common pasture, many people realize that the land is getting degraded, and they start talking about it -- trying to convince everyone that the number of goats needs to be limited. But, it's also really important to people to have enough goats, and maybe a few extra -- remember, we're talking about their kids' survival, plus some creature comforts. So only a few very committed people actually limit the number of goats they keep. And guess what? Those are the families that become the poorest, and whose kids are the most likely to be undernourished or possibly die of starvation. That’s why Garrett Hardin calls conscience “self-eliminating”.

Finally, calls to conscience just plain don’t work very well. As long as the number of people who respond to the call is low, their efforts at conservation are drowned out by the consumption/pollution/wastefulness of everyone else. In an extreme case, conscientious people make sacrifices and NO ONE benefits.