Good News on Climate’s Biggest Unknown: What Will the Humans Do?

(Siegfried Layda/Getty Images)

Two Happy Findings About Humans: No ‘Tragedy of the Commons,’ and ‘The Ultimatum Game’


Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

By Bill Blakemore

Climate scientists around the world have long said that “the biggest unknown” as they try to predict the rate and severity of global warming is the answer to their question, “What will the humans do?”

How much and how fast will we slow and reverse the greenhouse emissions that come from burning coal, oil and gas, felling forests and plowing up land, that are now causing the rapid rise of earth’s temperature?

Amid all the bad news about that (scientists report a massive gap between what we’re planning and what needs to be done)  there are two bits of good news.

The first is a discovery for which American political scientist Elinor Ostrom became, in 2009, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Economics.

She showed that the “Tragedy of the Commons” (its overuse and destruction) doesn’t happen, at least when all the people who share the commons can get together and talk about it.

In other words, people aren’t complete idiots.

She found that, when there are no internal or external forces preventing the “commoners” (who share, say, a large “commons” or pastureland in a medieval European town) from a free, open and robust discussion of how they should agree to govern and limit their use of it so it doesn’t get overgrazed and thus ruined for all, then the commons goes on thriving.

This may give some hope to those watching conversations such as those at the global climate summit this December in Durban, South Africa.

Ultimately, of course, the one commons we all use is the planet.

“The Tragedy of the Commons” is an idea presented by ecologist Garrett Hardin in an influential paper of that title published in the journal Science in 1968.

His “commons” metaphor suggested that individuals often each put as many sheep or cows as they can on the commons, which nobody owns, to benefit themselves, leading to its collapse.

Ostrom, then in her early 30s, spent the next 40 years checking out that thesis.

She examined societies of all kinds around the world and back through the ages, looking at many kinds of “commons” — from pastures to fisheries, forests to watersheds, and many others.

What she found, impressing her colleagues worldwide, was that “the tragedy of the commons” often simply does not happen.

When the people who live around and actually use the commons can converse regularly about its use, they figure it out. They compare notes and begin to set their own rules and means of monitoring compliance.

Thus they may avoid pasture collapse and have a village life regular and comfortable enough so they can plan time for holidays, enjoy a good harvest feast together with their families, friends and sweethearts, start new families for a next generation, and (having secured enough food for all) even have reasonable time left over to write poetry and ponder the really daunting mysteries like the universe and existence itself.

Professor Hardin even readjusted his 1968 thesis to fit with Ostrom’s findings, acknowledging the accuracy and excellence of her work.

So, good news. People aren’t (always) idiots.

This raises an important question.

When they are idiots, what prevented them from talking it over and working out ways to save their commons?

A variety of studies to have found that, sometimes, outside parties, who may enter a commons with the aim of extracting something for their own gain, find ways to silence or divide local users of the commons in order to prevent their governance or control of it.

A number of economists and political scientists  (many with no guiding political party affiliation) now study how multi-national petroleum and gas companies, as well as large timber and agricultural business, may tend to silence or divide local people who live where these resources may be found, extracted and carted away to distant markets.

This is where two kinds of “commons” clash.

Two Kinds of Commons — Local and Global

For example, the possible destruction of a forest or vast field of oil-rich tar-sands can contribute to the disruption of the heat balance of the all-enveloping commons of the planet’s air and of the acidity of its oceans, simply because such destruction puts extra CO2 in the air.

But, suggests Ostrom, this catastrophic outcome does not need to happen if all the people who share this planetary commons can talk about it freely and vigorously — as they try to do at such conferences as global UN climate summits and other venues.

In his book, “The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering our ability to rescue the earth,” Alaskan journalist Charles Wohlforth, who reported for many years on the physical and social aftermath of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, describes how Ostrom’s good news about the human race is always at play, ready to be nurtured amid all the bad news about the human race.

Here’s a brief video interview with Wohlforth about that.

It is conducted, by the way, across the street from our ABC News offices in New York’s Central Park, another commons recently saved from urban blight (which had ruined it by the 1970s), when the people who live around the park and use it most often took over its governance, forming The Central Park Conservancy.

The Tragedy of the Commons Doesn’t Happen when people can talk – Charles Wohlforth and Nobel Prize Winner Elinor Ostrom

Yet More Good News About Humans: The Amazing ‘Ultimatum Game’


And just why do human manage to cooperate when they can freely discuss the use of a commons?

Listen to Wohlforth describe the amazing “Ultimatum Game,” which has been tested on people in many cultures around the world.

It’s enough to make you think that maybe, just maybe, humanity isn’t all bad:

Humanity’s Amazing “Ultimatum Game”:

Realistic Hope on  a Warming Planet and the other “Commons” in Nature