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Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons: An Azadist Perspective
By Arjun Singh | | |

Part 1: The Tragedy

ਜਲੇ ਹੈਂ ॥ ਥਲੇ ਹੈਂ ॥ ਅਭੀਤ ਹੈਂ ॥ ਅਭੇ ਹੈਂ ॥੬੨॥
Thou art in water. thou art on land. thou art fearless. thou are indiscriminate. || 62 ||

The Tragedy of the Commons is rooted with the presumption that all individuals act in their own self-interest, which is emphasized as well throughout the Azadist Manifesto. The tragedy is that, due to this fact, individuals in a society will over-consume a shared resource, eventually resulting in a complete depletion of the resource itself. Essentially, the “commons” here are the shared resources, and the “tragedy” is that the decisions made to over-consume these resources stems from the natural human urge to operate in one’s own self-interest, which leads to negative outcomes for economic and environmental wealth. Due to the lack of defined restrictions on usage limits, we are naturally going to use as much as possible before someone else can. Since anybody can use these resources, a ’survival of the fittest’ type mindset kicks in and the ensuing free-for-all leads to less of the resource.
Since resources seem to be unlimited, there is no everyday realization of the depletion of these resources, which is happening overtime, at scale. Ultimately, there are no markets for these resources, which allows anybody to abuse them in excess without receiving any direct negative repercussions. If you personally aren’t doing any harm to the environment, the person beside you likely will, resulting in the natural human decision to be a part of this tragedy. It is the inefficiency of resource consumption that will lead to the potential extinction of them. These are the same resources that can be boiled down to be a part of every second of our lives, along with the composition of our own bodies - that at the current rate of consumption may lead to extinction.
Photo by Dan Stark on
With public/shared resources, there is no personal responsibility over the resource itself, as it is assumed public authorities will take care of this or that it’s simply not their problem. In a privately owned resource, people can suffer consequences more directly if they pollute or abuse someone’s private property (given a functioning justice system). Although a government/public resource can do this too, relying on a competent and benevolent enough government to centrally manage such a large amount of resources by a relatively minute group is inefficient. The irony here is that the tragedy of commons is more common with government and public resources. With a lack of limits surrounding concepts of ownership along with rules set by private owners, there is inevitably a lack of accountability and responsibility when looked at from a broader perspective. With private ownership, there is a greater incentive to maintain sustainability, since the consequences of depletion are far more direct. It is the direct investment of an owners own resources that will be lost if the resource is destroyed. Whereas a publicly owned resource, managed by a government body who do not directly own it (as it is managing on behalf of all), the incentive to maintain it is far lower as the government is paid regardless of its performance via taxation. It will not directly feel the effects of its destruction since none of the officials directly own it or have invested in it. Hence, the incentive to enforce rules for sustainability are far higher with a private ownership model than a public one, hence why also, the public get away with so much when abusing publicly owned resources. People are more incentivized to not abuse a resource only when there is a reprucission involved, however, a privately owned resource is more likely to enforce these due to the above incentive structure.
The tragedy of the commons, therefore, can be used to explain the fundamental problem behind so many environmental issues. Some examples that we can see today as a result of this include the overgrazing of cattle, overfishing, overpopulation, pollution, over-harvesting, just to name a few. This can extend even further to show that cheap air cooling has resulted in of tons of fossil fuels going into the atmosphere, the overuse of antibiotics in raising livestock to maximize cheap food production resulting in antibiotic resistance which threatens the entire population¹. Additionally, nobody owns the streets, which results in excessive littering, traffic congestion (over usage of public roads), and overall lack of care for this resource.
We can dive deeper into the example of overfishing, which in summary is the problem of taking too many fish out of the sea at once at a rate too quick for them to reproduce in time. (which thus results in the potential extinction of affected species). Although at first glance it may seem that the extinction of fish is the only problem here (statistic of dates), and we can assume there are folks that could care less if there are no more fish left in the ocean (general assumption from a dietary perspective). However, we can take a look at this further to explain the ecosystem and the chain reaction that occurs with overfishing. For example, coral reefs are maintained by plant-eating fish (by eating the algae from them and thus keeping the reefs maintained), and the argument behind sustaining coral reefs is it’s medical uses, coastal protection, and tourism/recreation economies². After understanding the ripple effect here, there are arguably more people that are able to grasp why this may be a longer term issue.

Part 2: Short-term Gain for Long-term Pain?

ਰਸੁ ਸੁਇਨਾ ਰਸੁ ਰੁਪਾ ਕਾਮਣਿ ਰਸੁ ਪਰਮਲ ਕੀ ਵਾਸੁ ॥
The pleasures of gold and silver, the pleasures of women, the pleasure of the fragrance of sandalwood,

ਰਸੁ ਘੋੜੇ ਰਸੁ ਸੇਜਾ ਮੰਦਰ ਰਸੁ ਮੀਠਾ ਰਸੁ ਮਾਸੁ ॥
the pleasure of horses, the pleasure of a soft bed in a palace, the pleasure of sweet treats and the pleasure of hearty meals

ਏਤੇ ਰਸ ਸਰੀਰ ਕੇ ਕੈ ਘਟਿ ਨਾਮ ਨਿਵਾਸੁ ॥੨॥
these pleasures of the human body are so numerous; how can the Naam, the Name of the Lord, find its dwelling in the heart? || 2 ||

Ultimately, the over-consumption of these resources are short-term pleasures that result in negative long-term effects to the environment, which directly relates to the wealth of the economy³. Gurbani teaches us to see pleasure and pain as the same, and liberate us from the cycle of birth and death, which can also be interpreted as the cycles of dukh and sukh, where the goal is to be at a state of bliss no matter what the situation is. This means that our Gurus themselves would also be focusing on long-term impacts of worldly endeavours, which gives us a framework on how we should approach issues like this one.
What we can see in the Shabad mentioned at the beginning of this section is Guru Ji referring to a variety of short-term pleasures. The certain pleasures that are chosen here as well are very strategic, where Guru Ji is encompassing all facets of life and ensuring nothing is missed. On one hand, pleasures of wealth such as gold, silver, and horses are discussed, and on the other hand, pleasures of personal senses such as sleep and sweet treats are discussed. This seems to be done in a way to make sure no pleasures are left out, and the ego is completely eliminated to ensure one does not come to believe that their pleasure is better because it’s related to sleep rather than wealth, or food rather than women. Here, Guru Ji aims to put all pleasures into one category, and emphasizes the main point at the end, that by chasing these short-term pleasures, we forget about the long term, the more important vision, the more important Ras in this case, which is Naam. Naam is the Ras that turns sparrows into hawks, humans into super humans, and has the ability to liberate you from the mundane life to allow you to experience the ultimate form of Anand.
The reason for going over the Shabad in the previous paragraph, is to show that we can use Guru Ji’s Bani to look at the tragedy of the commons and understand how all of these short-term pleasures can ultimately lead to long-term damage for all life on earth. As seen in the examples previously, these are the short-term pleasures of over-consumption that lead to pain for the individual themselves, along with the other stakeholders of nature that the individual may not even be aware they are harming. Here, a “shared” resource means that, each individual sharing it has the exact same claim to ownership and rights to usage, along with how it is used. Therefore, you need everyone to explicitly agree, including those not directly using it but are affected as a consequence of its use, on the way it is used. Because this is an increasingly impossible task as you scale up to larger population sizes (such as the world human population when it comes to carbon emissions) the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP)⁴ is thereby broken due to the lack of consent obtained.

Part 3: Who Cares About the Environment?

ਪਵਣੁ ਗੁਰੂ ਪਾਣੀ ਪਿਤਾ ਮਾਤਾ ਧਰਤਿ ਮਹਤੁ ॥
Air is the Guru, Water is the Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all.

ਦਿਵਸੁ ਰਾਤਿ ਦੁਇ ਦਾਈ ਦਾਇਆ ਖੇਲੈ ਸਗਲ ਜਗਤੁ ॥
Day and night are ach like the nanny and her caregiving husband, in whose lap the whole world is at play

Privilege is when you think something isn’t a problem because it doesn’t affect you. Because many of us have moved over to the west, and live fairly comfortable lifestyles, we fail to acknowledge the struggles of the generations before us, from our parents/grandparents all the way to our Gurus and Shaheeds. In the same way that we take Sikhi for granted because we haven’t experienced or seen any sacrifices, wars, or battles first hand, we fail to value it to it’s full extent. For example, if Bhai Taru Singh was willing to get his scalp removed instead of cutting his hair and/or converting to Islam, shouldn’t we consider that there just may be some value in keeping Kes?⁵ If Guru Nanak Dev Ji tells us to eradicate our Panj Chor, shouldn’t we consider there may be some value in disciplining our minds, and experiencing the bliss of Hukam, and Naam?
The point here is that, this is the same way we are taking advantage of the environment, taking resources for granted, and not understanding that, essentially, everything is linked one way or another, and the things we use on an everyday basis are slowly depleting because of the tragedy of the commons. Because there’s still an abundance of resources in our immediate access, we don’t see the tragedy, for example, that the overconsumption of coffee (a naturally shared resource) has resulted in the loss of habitats for many plants, specifically endangering 60 percent of the plants’ species⁶. Or that, according to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, air pollution from high-traffic areas are linked to over 2,200 deaths per year - in the United States alone⁶. These few examples are used to show that innately, as a human being these problems should open a few eyes. However, as a Sikh, or a Khalsa, we should aim to develop methods to ensure resources are shared as much as possible, to give everybody equal opportunities to create competition which will ensure a thriving, but sustainable free and fair-market economy.
If the Khalsa is Akal Purakh Ki Fauj, and the Earth itself is a manifestation of that Oneness, shouldn’t our Fauj have a responsibility to take a lead on this? Shouldn’t we take ownership and look out for the rest of humanity, nature, land, and water? Where everything is ultimately interconnected with the divine oneness, the creator and the creation itself are omnipresent, and Waheguru is everywhere, we should see the environment as a sargun saroop of Akal Purakh and be at the forefront of environmental protection and sustainability of resources. Guru Har Rai Ji themselves were passionate about preserving nature, as they played a key role in the development of Kiratpur Sahib with the planting of flowers, fruit trees, medicinal herbs, and wildlife sanctuaries. This created a thriving environment that would attract birds and animals, alongside feeding them, and it is said that he was one of the earliest environmentalists in South Asia⁷.
We can all agree that, since the air is our Guru, the water is our Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all, then there goes without a doubt that resource sustainability is crucial factor in serving our Guru, Father, and Mother. The ultimate solution for this in an Azadist society would be the privatization⁸ of resources which will be discussed in a further paper, going over the specifics of potential solutions and action items we can take as a collective⁹.
Photo by Karsten Würth on
What we require is a long term vision, which is where the ultimate ras is found anyways (for the entire world). Wouldn’t we want to walk on a path that has positive impacts on the whole of humanity, society, and nature, rather than be stuck in the same cycles in the short term? Don’t we want to remove ourselves from the shackles placed on us by society and stop acting like sheep? Once we have a collective mentality to think for the long-term, we can progress forward and ensure the benefit of everybody is taken into account without overconsumption of vital resources.


This quick TED-Ed video by a Science Teacher goes over how the short-term pleasures of resource consumption is resulting in corresponding negative long-term impacts on the environment
Link: What is the tragedy of the commons? - Nicholas Amendolare
This article gives a broad overview of the ripple effect of overfishing and provides options of sustainable practices that can be implemented
Link: How overfishing threatens the world’s oceans - and why it could end in a catastrophe
This post on the Official Azadism Instagram page goes over the necessity for long term along with it’s importance in relation to economics
Link: Time Preference & It’s Implications For The Guru Khalsa Panth
The Non-Agression Principle (NAP) is essentially the right for all to live however they choose, provided it does not impede the right for others to do the same. Please read Section 1 of the Azadist Manifesto for more information about this
Link: Azadist Manifesto Section 1: Self-Interest
Bhai Taru Singh was a farmer who dedicated his life to the Khalsa and is known for his martyrdom by being scalped alive by the Mughal Empire in the 1700s. Here’s a discourse by Bhai Harman Singh from Basics of Sikhi which dives deeper into his life story and martyrdom
Link: What is Dharam? Bhai Taru Singh Ji by Harman Singh
This article by Harvard Business School Online’s Business Insight Blog explains how some of the most basic things we consume on a daily basis link directly to the tragedy of the commons
Link: Tragedy of the Commons: What it is and 5 examples
Brief overview of Guru Har Rai Ji’s contribution to environmentalism
Link: Guru Har Rai Ji: Seeing the Divine In Nature
Although there may be a negative connotation with the concept of privatization, we encourage the Sangat to have an open mind here and read through this section in the Manifesto to break any preconceived notions
Link: Azadist Manifesto Section 3: Private Vs. Public
Although free-market environmentalism is a concept from earlier, this video here by Terry Andersen, an Economics Academic, gives a brief introduction to how free-markets can be applied to this tragedy
Link: Free Market Environmentalism with Terry Andersen: Perspectives on Policy
All Gurbani translations and references have been referenced from Sikhi to the Max
Link: Sikhi to the Max

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