Tragedy of the Commons

Posted by Ben Shaw on Sep 27th 2022

Tragedy of the Commons

I was at the shop working a Saturday shift about a month ago. Sometimes we get busy and our back-of-house spaces miss out on the care we provide to the public spaces. One of those areas is our staff kitchen, specifically the fridge. I noticed the state it was in— random juices stuck to the shelves, unidentifiable items in the freezer. It was what you might call a tragedy of the commons, a space that everyone has the freedom to use but people lack the responsibility to care for. An example of the phrase, “Not my problem.”

Pike’s Peak, CO is a common space to be enjoyed and cared for by all.

It’s a scenario that plays out all over our cities, our wild spaces, and this planet. We often lack the feeling of ownership that could improve a whole lot of things. You see a pile of trash on the curb that blows down the street; you watch people hike down the trail and step over the fallen branch instead of dragging it to the side and improving the path for everyone. You, the passerby, didn’t cause these problems, others did, but what are you doing to solve them? Do you say to yourself, “This isn’t my space, this isn’t my problem?” Do you think, “Someone else will come along and take care of this?”

When you walk through the backcountry and stumble across a campsite with trash in the firepit and beer cans in the bushes, what do you do? When you see garbage piled up at the trailhead, do you leave it there or do you haul a bag out? I can’t tell you the number of cans and bottles I’ve hauled out of Red River Gorge, the collective bags of garbage I’ve picked up in Clifton. I’m not here to brag, I’m here to share a thought. What if we all treated the world around us with care and attention? What if we acted instead of making excuses or thinking ourselves out of making a difference?

Trail work, such as this in Red River Gorge, KY, is a way to give back to wild spaces.

We talk about Leave No Trace, we talk about stewardship of our outdoor spaces, and we have conversations about the increasing number of people recreating on our public lands. We should also talk about how we give people a sense of ownership in both the places they recreate and the public spaces we inhabit. It’s a tough thing to do. You cannot teach ownership; you cannot teach people to care. It must grow naturally.

I take people backpacking, kayaking, and climbing in the wilderness. After they see magnificent views and take a dip in crystal-clear water, they come back to the frontcountry relaxed, refreshed, and happy. We often find ourselves in this conversation. They start to think about how they can care for the space they are in. They have a sense of ownership.

If everyone took inspiration from the vast green forests, rushing rivers, or rocky alpine landscapes they find themselves in, we might make a collective difference in how we think. If each of us picked up a few pieces of trash and switched a few things about the way we live and what we consume, we’d have a chance to keep this little blue dot a beautiful place.

A trash free beach is a rare example where the tragedy of the commons doesn’t prevail.

Next time you go outside, think about your impact— the positives you provide and the negatives you create. Think about how you would want a space to look if it was your responsibility. At the end of the day, it is. Together we’re responsible for the way our world goes. If enough of us accept responsibility and take action, this’ll be a pretty good rock to live on in this big ol’ universe.