William Forster Lloyd famously outlined the idea of The Tragedy of the Commons in 1833. To summarize, it refers to the fact that any shared resource (i.e. commons) that has a slow recovery rate is bound to deplete eventually due to the greed of those sharing it. The example that’s almost always invoked to explain this phenomenon is that of a pasture land in a village, the argument being that if each individual household is to restrict how much they graze their cattle on the land, allowing it the needed time to recover, not only does everyone get to use it, but for a longer period of time as well. However, humans are poor collaborators and are bound to take more than is allocated for themselves. But if every other household starts using the lands a bit more than is reasonable, the resource, i.e. grass, is soon spent and no one’s able to utilize it anymore. Whether an essentially inescapable kismet or just some chance anomaly, this phenomenon has been much studied in the fields of, inter-alia, Sociology, Behavioral Biology, Economy, Environment, and Mathematics. When I first discovered it, I was particularly struck by the fact that it’s called a tragedy. My eventual reconciliation, however, was that it indeed is a tragedy when the ones being robbed are the robbers themselves. Which is to say, there’s no one to blame in this situation. But what if there were someone to blame? How would that change the optics? This, precisely, is what I’ll be delineating in what I’ve come to call The impotence of the commoners.
My observation begins with a question: What are you willing to do to a person that is certain to end you? Or, to phrase it in a slightly less sinister fashion: What lengths are you willing (and allowed) to go to save your own life? What extent of your actions will be justified? To yourself? To others? This same question was, in fact, once posed to the Dalai Lama, the champion of one of the most non-violent religions on Earth. The short version of his answer was that you can obviously strike back, but you should, however, try to keep it non-lethal. Similarly, Jurisprudence — the branch of study that deals with morality and ethics — has significant expositions on the fundamentals and subtleties of self-defensive actions (which may or may not include a trolley.) However, the knowledge of right and wrong is not just exclusive to those who’ve been through a law school. Even the basest of man knows deep inside about what is just and what is unjust — a sense that is aptly termed as the natural law. To some, this intrinsic feeling tells them that it is okay to incapacitate a threat upon your life, and to some, unlike the Dalai Lama, it tells them that it is justified to even neutralize it. Whatever be the degree of retaliation, it seems that a common baseline is agreed upon by all: you are entirely justified in trying to save your own life.
On to my next point: there are a few people who possess the power to eradicate not just you, but everyone on this planet in the near future. In fact, never before in the history of the entire human race, has there ever been a fascinatingly terrible time like this before, i.e. an individual possessing the capacity to annihilate every single human life on their whim. The first and the most obvious way in which this could be done would be via nuclear weapons. With there being at least eight countries that claim nuclear weaponry, the head of these states have the power to authorize a nuclear attack. And while we would really like to believe that there are substantive checks and protocols in place to ensure, beyond all reasonable doubt, that such a dreaded day may never dawn upon us, the sorry state of the current world affairs suggest otherwise. Amidst these nuclear powers, some are dictatorships, which, by now, are accustomed to threatening nuclear operations every so often just to stay relevant. More and more of us, including the UN Secretary General himself, now believe that a nuclear incident is one unfortunate misunderstanding away from us. And it isn’t an outrageous leap of logic to assume that any single nuclear attack is bound to be met with extreme prejudice by other nuclear-weapon states, effectively resulting in large scale nuclear explosions that’ll not just kill millions by blast and radiation alone, but ultimately wipe out all human life from this planet by triggering a nuclear winter — the dropping of the global temperature to the point that will make Earth uninhabitable for us. It pains me immensely to conclude that these vain and narcissist deities of death will probably not shirk away from triggering an all out mutual destruction should they ever feel significantly threatened in any way.
And it’s not just about nuclear attacks, either. There are other kinds of deaths waiting for us at the hands of select individuals as we scurry about our lives unaware. To understand it better, let’s make use of this hypothetical situation: you happen to share a lake, your only source of aquatic subsistence with your neighbor. Should they be allowed to mix poison in their portion of the lake? If you say no, they’ll counter by saying that it’s their jurisdiction, and you have no right to interfere with what they choose to do with things that happen to be on their part of the land. They are completely convinced that they are justified in doing so, but if you’re thinking, “How can they do that? I consume that water as well, and poisoning it will kill me! This is outrageous!” Congratulations, you have figured out the ongoing disaster with the Amazon rainforest. It is believed that 17% of the rainforest has already been depleted, and the government there seems to be intent on increasing that number in the near future. This is certain to invite catastrophic consequences, as the rainforest is not only a source of precious Oxygen, but also an important regulator of the global temperature. And when a tipping point in deforestation is reached, there will be untold calamity, possibly resulting in the extinction of the humankind. The fact that something this crucial to your life is on someone else’s hands and that the said individual justifies toying with it because they think it’s on their jurisdiction is such a human concept that the animals would’ve raucously laughed at us if they had enough cognition.
Today, there are CEOs, politicians, industrialists, and oligarchs who are either completely ignorant or choose to knowingly promote the destruction of a habitat they share with all of us by encouraging practices that contribute towards Global Warming, simply because it’s more profitable for them in the short term. If this is not a ludicrous fact in itself, I invite you to observe a further absurdity. While these individuals are in the process of expunging us in one way or the other, we enable them to do so without any opposition whatsoever, whereas, reason tells us that we should be retaliating instead, vehemently. So why, then, are we sitting on the sidelines nervously chewing on our nails while our very existence is being staked in a gamble that we never quite signed up for?
Circling back to our initial example, it is indeed a tragedy that you can do nothing when your pasture land is being depleted by the greed of the collective, but what if a lone lunatic is about to incinerate it to ashes? Retaliation is not just justified, but even virtuous if taken in self-defense, as all seem to agree. And yet, if we, the commoners who share these commons, are unable or even unwilling to do the bare minimum to stop these madmen from laying waste to our sustenance, is that not the very definition of impotence?