Do Not Steal.

The Commons Tale of win–lose, win–win–LOSE, and lose–lose–LOSE


In the narrative of the “Tragedy of the Commons”,(1,2) a shared grazing area (aka common pool resource(3)) is trampled into overgrazed ruin by a pervasion of actors who exploit the resource more quickly than can be sustainably allotted. Regardless of whether there is consciousness of guilt, this is theft. In all such environmental tragedies, the high irony is that the value stolen is vastly less than what would have been available even within a relatively short term; if the damages are permanent, the losses for that local environment and its human tenants are beyond measure.

In the early stages of societal evolution, theft might have been taboo within a given tribe, but much less so (if at all) when perpetrated outside the tribe: perceived ethical objections blocking theft have always weakened steeply with decreasing kinship. Thus, while the commandment “Do not steal” as it is manifested in many of the world’s religions has helped maintain local social order, it has not been taken very seriously as a guideline for governing how we act toward those outside our own societal gridlines. This failing is at the root of optimization against others at every scale, whether by (1) one family vs. another, as with overgrazing of a commons; (2) one race vs. another within a nation-state, as with race-rationalized economic subjugation; (3) one people vs. another, as with state-sponsored regional land annexation; (4) one nation-state vs. another, as in struggles for regional/global hegemony; and now, in the Anthropocene,(4) (5) the cancer of human growth vs. planetary Nature, as manifested in our rampant devastation of natural habitats, overfishing of the oceans and grossly excessive emissions to the atmosphere of the gases that have led to the climate crisis, ocean acidification, and stratospheric ozone depletion.

Disconnected Risk and Cost-Benefit

In any human–human interaction, there are benefits as well as risks and costs to consider. There is no theft when, for a given action, the net accountings of benefits vs risks and costs of all involved parties are equal. Inequity, however, arises as soon as there is disconnection between those deriving most of the benefit, and those carrying most/all of the risks and costs. In the overgrazing example, each land abuser that adds one more animal to the commons accrues significant benefit and suffers only minor short-term risks and costs. For the remaining members of the cooperative, there is no connection to the benefit, only exposure to untoward natural consequences. The result is win–lose theft, as is also the case in race vs. race, people vs. people, and nation-state vs. nation state interactions. Adding in the implications for the local environment as a third party, the outcome in the abused commons narrative can more precisely be characterized as win–lose–lose in the short term, and lose–lose–lose in the long term.


In the Anthropocene, human-from-Nature theft consequences arise from producer-consumer market transactions, with Nature a disconnected third party inflicted with the large negative externality costs generated by legion producers and consumers. The human–human transactions might be mostly win–win, but overall the result is win–win–LOSE, the capitalization being a nod to the outsized magnitude of the negative at-scale environmental effects."

Continue to the full article to further delve into the discussion of two laws of human and environmental partnership and preservation below. 

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Do Not Steal. The Commons Tale of win–lose, win–win–LOSE, and lose–lose–LOSE

James F. Pankow

Environmental Science & Technology Article ASAP

DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c04814

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