The tragedy of the commons


These are days of confusion and uncertainty…heartache and tears…fear and unrest. These are days of division and distancing…facemasks and hand sanitizer…protests and hard truth. Some days I scroll social media and it seems like it could actually be the end of the world or at least the end of the world as we once experienced it. For me these are also days of long conversations and even longer walks as I strive to discern my next right steps and my voice and my responsibility toward freedom and respect for all human life…love and kindness for all generations…equality for all skin colors…a voice for all communities.

We each have a role to play.

On one of my long walks last week, I journeyed over a river. The bridge was large and recently modified with a sidewalk for pedestrians and cyclists to remain safe from the highway traffic. As I walked, I noticed a padlock on the chain link fence border. I didn’t think anything of it but then noticed another and then another. I stopped to take a closer look and saw that initials were carved into each lock…you know the way young lovers carve their initials into a tree. I rarely leave things unanswered so later that night I decided to research a little to see what I could find out about those locks.

What I found was amazing and beautiful and also tragic and eye opening and oh so relevant.

You see the random locks placed on the fence of the bridge have a long history dating all the way back to World War I when two young lovers would meet on a particular bridge in Serbia and dream about their future together. I imagine they would hold hands and gaze at each other with googly eyes as they excitedly planned a future full of happiness and adventure. But then the man was called to war and never returned to her because he met and fell in love with someone else while serving abroad. I have some thoughts about that, but those would be for another blog another day. As the story goes, the young woman died of a broken heart. Superstitious local women began visiting the bridge, writing the initials of themselves and their lovers on padlocks and locking them to the bridge, in the hope that it would bind their love forever. Eventually the hype faded as it usually does until a Serbian poet wrote about the story in a poem years later. Again, it inspired a surge in hopeful padlock romance and then again, another fade until an Italian writer gave it life yet again but this time in Paris. Couples traveled from all around to lock their love to this now famous bridge. The tradition caught traction and spread all over the world and even got a huge shout out on the hilarious show Parks and Rec assumingly leading to the locks I spotted on my walk. Now, I’m not one to lean into superstition, however, a gesture of someone’s undying love is breathtakingly romantic, don’t you think? I mean, it almost sounds like the things dreams are made of or the end of a fairy tale; seemingly harmless and dreamy.

But before you run out to find the perfect lock in which to secure a future with your beloved, consider this: Putting one lock on a bridge and throwing away the key was no big deal, but 45 tons of locks later and the bridge collapsed under the weight!

Yep. You read that right.

And not just the original bridge but so many bridges collapsed that some governments consider these “love locks” a crime! This lock disaster is an example of a concept ecologists call “The tragedy of the commons”, a phrase used to reference our responsibility to preserve environmental resources.

It means that if one person acts in a selfish way, the impact is small, but if masses of people act in selfish ways it’s detrimental to the health of our communities.

Example: If a community gets their fresh drinking water from a well, one person drinking more than their share has little impact but if multiple people drink more than their share, the water runs out and everyone eventually goes thirsty. Make sense?

In “Becky” words, “If one person considers himself/herself to be better or more deserving or more important than another, that stinks, but if a bunch of us decide we are that one exception, the entire community suffers and eventually dies”.

We’re seeing this play out right before our very eyes…in our communities. It looks like this:

  • Individuals exercising their freedom to not wear a mask during a global pandemic knowing that wearing it would make others feel safer

  • Toilet paper hoarding knowing in a lifetime it couldn’t be consumed in one household

  • Tweets saying how much one loves the quarantine because they can freely move about the community without hassle from other humans

  • Moms letting their children play on a closed public playground because it’s “just my kid”

  • People who believe they can remain quiet in the face of injustice because someone else will speak out

  • People so frustrated with standing in long lines that they lash out at the employees

Before you run too far down the thought process of, “those examples are the exception to the rule, not the norm”, or "this is political" let me share some research with you:

Dylan Selterman, a lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Maryland and editor-in-chief of In-Mind magazine, conducts an experiment in his phycology class each year. It’s a version of an exercise developed by experts in psychology 30 years ago. At the beginning of each year, Dylan tells his students,

“You can each earn some extra credit on your term paper. You get to choose whether you want 2 points added to your grade, or 6 points. But there’s a catch: if more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points. All selections are anonymous, and the course grades are not curved.” *

The exercise is supposed to encourage students to consider how their actions affect others. In 2015, Dylan reported that he had been giving this option to students since 2008, and only ONE class had ever gotten it right! In all other classes, more than 10 percent chose the 6-point option. You see, the temptation to put “self” above others is very real and very strong in all of us…. admittedly some more than others with varying motivations, but it exists in all of us.

The exercise is troubling to me on many levels. I can only conclude that the students enter into their year of learning in this class having heard of the exercise and the outcomes of years prior and yet they still fail miserably.

Students still go into it thinking the best outcome would be for everyone else in the class to sacrifice for the good of the group EXCEPT for themselves.

But why? I mean, I think most of us could agree that it feels really good to do the right thing…to help other people…to contribute to the health and unity of our communities, yes? So why do these students get it wrong time and time again? Why do we get it wrong time and time again? Why do I get it wrong time and time again?

Because we’re humans.

Nobody wants to be the one taken advantage of. Nobody wants to lose or fail. We all want to protect ourselves. We all think “me” more than we think “you” from time to time. Those are natural instincts in us but when we act on those feelings it breeds mistrust and division and destruction within our own hearts and communities and we all lose. Self-preservation is actually harming our unity.

We can’t afford to be selfish any longer.

The professor agreed and so he began experimenting with ways to get cooperation from the students. He added a 0- point option. If students chose 0 points for themselves, they would cancel out one 6-point chooser thereby lowering the percentage of 6 -point choosers. Finally, progress began to be seen. By just a couple students choosing to be self- sacrificial and take 0 extra points, they could benefit the bigger group. It was a good start.

Fantastic news for the environment but it’s so much bigger than that.

You see, here’s the thing: As a people who claim to love and follow Jesus, we have to change our perspective first. We have to be the leaders in this. We have to link arms and commit to loving others well. We have to let the old lady with one item in front of us in the insanely long grocery store line. We have to give a roll of TP to someone in need and trust we’ll have enough when we need it. We have to stay home if the community is being asked to stay home whether we think it’s blown out of proportion or not. We have to practice self-control. We have to stand up for the oppressed. We have to use our words to encourage others or maybe keep our mouths shut. We have to be the self -sacrificial, 0-point choosers to get this love ball rolling.

It’s not an option, Jesus commanded it, but it’s so much harder to love people than it sounds. Believers have been getting it wrong since the day Jesus said it.

Paul, a former Christian hater turned Jesus lover and follower explained this concept far before these studies were ever conducted or bridges collapsed all over the world in the name of love. In a very intimate letter written while he was imprisoned, Paul encouraged believers to be “like-minded” in love and purpose. He said:

3 Be free from pride-filled opinions, for they will only harm your cherished unity. Don’t allow self-promotion to hide in your hearts, but in authentic humility put others first and view others as more important than yourselves.

Philippians 2:3 (TPT)

It seems so simple. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be prideful. Be humble. Consider other people more important than yourself. Share.

But the world has convinced us that considering other people to be more important than ourselves is equivalent to low self-esteem and that if we don’t look out for ourselves nobody else will. We’ve been tricked into thinking that putting someone else’s needs above our own is for the weak and the unsuccessful or mediocre, but nothing could be further from the truth. Helping others makes us stronger. We NEED each other. We are far better together than we are apart. Cooperation and collaboration are always smarter ways to live. Everybody wins. But it will take all humans coming together to make this our reality and it starts with us...it starts with you…it starts with me.

You see, the most recent studies to date revealed that the more a few people practiced self- sacrifice…the more numbers of people practiced self- sacrifice. It’s been proven. People will follow the majority; good, bad, or ugly. And if it works for environmental issues, it will work for our hearts and minds and words too.

We can actually lead a revolution of love.

We have the power in us to heal our fractured communities and care for our wounded just by being less selfish. Woooo! Now that’s some power.

So, for now, the “love locks” have reminded me that my role in this crazy life is to love each person in my sphere of influence as best I can...to put others before myself more times than not...to use my power to love for justice. I hope you’ll join me.

I’m going to start here and now, “Without ever having laid eyes on you, without knowing your skin color or gender or sexual orientation or background or religion or political views or mistakes, I know that you are lovely and that your life has great value. I love you and I’m glad you’re here.”

*The classroom study I refer to can be found in The Washington Post article written by Dylan Selterman