Thursday, October 05, 2017

Tragedy of the commons, or just plain laziness?

Recently, my brother-in-law sent me an article on eating donuts and drinking coffee at faculty meetings. Since the article was written by a professor, it quickly degenerated into an analysis of why a small bit of donut always stays on the plate, while the coffee pot is drained.

Coffee and donuts laid out at a meeting represent common pool resources (CPR). A CPR is defined as a resource that is non-excludable, yet rivaled. Non-excludability implies anybody in the room has open access to the resource; nobody, in essence, owns the resource and anybody can consume it. Rivaledness means that the resource is scarce and the more one person consumes, the less other people can enjoy. For every cup of coffee I drink, there is less for someone else.

The combination of non-excludable yet rivaled leads to a “tragedy of the commons,” wherein everybody rushes to use the resource and potentially depleting it to extinction. Garrett Hardin coined this term in his famous paper entitled, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

Okay, once I spotted an acronym. Not to mention words like non-excludability and rivaledness, well, MEGO.

Still, after reading the above, a question popped into my head. (My eyes had glazed over, not my brain.) And that question was anticipated by the author:

But what about the donuts? Donuts rarely “go extinct” at meetings. Some portion always remains. The reason for this relates to strong social norms guided by a concern for personal reputation combined with the high visibility of the good’s use in a small community. The person who consumes the last bit of a scarce resource often becomes tagged as “stingy,” someone who doesn’t think of the interests of others. We still want the good, but we restrain ourselves from taking the last piece for fear of being labeled greedy, particularly when everybody in the room can see the culprit. This explains why the one remaining donut often gets cut in half multiple times and there is almost always a bit of it left.

The coffee, if you remember, is different. Contained in a metal pot, the resource is more difficult to monitor and determine who took the last drop. If the stream dries up whilst pouring one’s second or third cup, it is easy to feign ignorance about knowing how much was left  — though we may feel a tinge of guilt for taking the final ounce.   

I’m not an academic. Never have been. Never will be. But I did spend a few decades in the workplace, Margaret Mead-ing it in the field, coming of professional age not in Samoa, but in high tech. And here’s what I observed:

When people leave an ever-diminishing piece of donut, or any other food stuff – the last half-sandwich, the last chip – that’s sitting there on the plate, it’s not because they don’t want to be labeled greedy. It’s because they don’t want to be the one to have to clean up. To toss the donut box, throw out the plastic sandwich platter, bus the cookie plate. And, while they’re at it, wiping down the table. As long as there is any evidence of edibility – something between a crumb and a full-bite – the grazer can assure him- or herself that they haven’t taken the last of it, and are thus off the hook for cleanup.

As for coffee, I never saw it as the Tragedy of the Commons. In fact, what I typically observed was someone leaving a swig of coffee in the bottom of the clear pot. Which I viewed as the Comedy of the Lazy-Arse Person Who’s Too Busy To Take the 30 Seconds Needed to Rinse the Pot, Rip Open a Bag of Coffee, Empty It Into the Coffee Maker and Flip the Switch.

I don’t even drink coffee, and yet this behavior drove me crazy. Especially when whoever left that swig in the bottom of the pot failed to turn off the burner. Because that would have meant acknowledging that there’s really nothing left. Anyway, the swig quickly burnt down, leaving the acrid smell of burnt coffee to permeate the kitchen. Gag.

Of course, whoever left the last bite of donut, whoever left the last swig of coffee, knew in their heart of hearts that someone – and in my anthropological experience, that someone was invariably a woman – would dump the dirty platter, wipe off the table, rinse out the pot – even scrubbing out the burnt on swig-gunk, and make another pot.

Tragedy of the Commons? Nah. Just plain old laziness (with a bit of sexist expectation thrown in…).

1 comment:

Rick said...

I like your explanation better, although the original is true too. When a kid I recall glaring in anger at a cousin, who had already had more than her share, when she took the last piece of lox from the communal plate. I hope that changed her behavior in the roughly 60 years since!