Can Blockchains help solve ‘Tragedies of the Commons?’

I think a lot about ideas that fall under the umbrella of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ — resources that we all must share, but that individuals are incentivized to hoard themselves for personal gain. The tragedy of the commons is typically talked about in terms of bank runs, land ownership, and other limited resources and assets.

My brain fluctuates (maybe too easily) between ecological sustainability and a generally socialist-egalitarian tendency to question economic fairnesses: why can’t we just share resources? Is our resource consumption destroying the planet, and if so, is this morally wrong and creating inequities for future generations? (Hint: I’m thinking yes & yes.)

I am absolutely not at all expert in this field — much more of a curious observer — but I’ve also recently been thinking theoretically about blockchains. The Economist Magazine calls the blockchain the “trust machine.” Even if you don’t realize it, you probably know the blockchain idea from Bitcoin — it’s what makes cryptocurrencies work without a central bank or a third-party mediator for transactions. Blockchains are distributed computing systems where nodes are connected in network, and where transactions in the network are recorded at every node and in sequence (like a public ledger)— in the lingo, a “chain” of transactions is recorded at each “block.” Thus, the name.

I don’t want to dwell on Bitcoin here, because cryptocurrency isn’t really my interest in the application of blockchains. People feel strongly about Bitcoin; I feel whatever about Bitcoin. It’s a thing.

My interest in the blockchain technology is the “trust machine” applications— how can we create trust between strangers, without paying some middleman or institution so that we, as private entities, may have the privilege of transacting with one another?

Could be blockchains be the answer? And if so, what does that mean?

In my opinion, tragedies of the commons lie at the root of many of society’s biggest unsolved problems. This is basically because limited resources cause inherent inequities. I think there are 2 major subsets of these limited natural resources: ones that we should and must use, and ones that we ideally should not use (at least at some point in the not-too-distant future).

Examples like…

Should & Must Use: Farmland + Freshwater

Should Avoid Using: Fossil Fuels

What would a blockchain that regulated natural resources look like in practice? Could we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels in an equitable way by using blockchains to mitigate renewed consumer interests as demand fell and prices fell with it? Could we create systems that perpetuate sustainably equitable distribution of local freshwater resources? Could we use blockchains to award cattle grazing rights in ways that make grazing lands able to effectively sequester carbon?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But I am hopeful that perhaps the answer to some could be “yes.”

There’s a relatively new(ish) platform called Etherium that promises to help people to create all different types of blockchain applications — not just cryptocurrencies. I’m really hopeful that blockchains might offer a logical and equitable (as well as economical) means for people to solve localized and globalized ‘Tragedies of the Commons.’

What do YOU think? Is this all wishy-washy hippy liberal techno pipedreaming? Or will blockchains actually create systems of equitable distribution that let people in the aggregate make smart collective decisions? Let me know!

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