Tragedy of the Commons

A Jewish perspective on a seminal essay of the modern environmentalist movement

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Interestingly, a case similar to the tragedy of the commons was described long ago in the Talmud (Baba Kamma 50b), as follows:

A pious man observed someone clearing rocks from his own field and disposing of them on an adjacent public road. "Why are you removing rocks from a place that doesn't belong to you and dumping them in a place that does belong to you?" the pious man asked. The incredulous offender scoffed at the strange comment. Some time later, the offender was forced to sell his field, and while traveling along the same road, stumbled over the same rocks he had disposed of there. The meaning of the pious man's words finally dawned on him and he exclaimed, "That pious man spoke correctly when he asked, 'Why are you removing rocks from a place that doesn't belong to you and dumping them in a place that does belong to you!'"

The Talmud does something very interesting here: It reframes the problem. As a guide to moral action, the Talmud focuses on the responsibility of  each individual making the moral decision whether to exploit the commons for his own profit and to the detriment of society, or not. It's no longer a matter of private versus public ownership or government intervention to save the public from those who would abuse their freedoms. Population control doesn't enter into the picture.

The problem is one of properly understanding one's place in the broader scheme of things. The Creator runs the world. Our ownership or control of what we think is "ours" is not absolute, nor is it permanent. Circumstances can change in short time. The only resources that the individual has a permanent stake in are the public resources he shares with everyone else around him; these are the resources that must be protected for posterity. The focus of each individual, vis-à-vis the commons, is on obligations, not rights. When each individual focuses on his obligations--to his Creator, to his fellow man, and to his environment life-support system--then the commons are in good hands.

Talmud & the Commons

To return to Hardin's example of the shared pasture: How might a Talmudic approach work? Each herdsman has the obligation to keep the commons in good shape--after all, he has a "permanent" stake in it. This does not preclude personal profit, but personal profit is no longer the focus. Disease, predators, or other circumstances could come and wipe out his herd. The wellbeing of the commons, in which he shares a permanent stake, will ensure that others will be able to help in his time of need and allow him to start over if need be.

There is another important element. If other herdsmen are overgrazing, can't our herdsman claim that it is unfair to expect him to do otherwise. Why should he be a "friar" and be the one to lose out?  Here we can turn to a more recent ruling, by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a 20th-century Orthodox luminary, may his memory be blessed. Rabbi Feinstein was asked about the permissibility of a person smoking in a study hall in which others are also smoking. The combined smoke from all the smokers harms those who are inside the study hall. Perhaps, our smoker could argue, he should be permitted to smoke in the hall. After all, he is only slightly contributing to a larger problem for which he, as an individual, could not be held responsible. Even if he personally stopped smoking, there would be little noticeable affect.

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Rabbi Akiva Wolff is director of the environmental responsibility unit of the Center for Business Ethics in Jerusalem. He also teaches environmental management at the Jerusalem College of Technology--Machon Lev.