Science Fiction, the Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons, and the Delusions of the Rich

I read two recent science fiction novels and was surprised to find the same objection and a similar observation in both of them. The two novels were Walkaway by Cory Doctorow and New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Both of them are neither utopian nor dystopian but imaginings of life in, respectively, a post-scarcity open source society of “walkaways” versus million, billion, trillionaires called “zottas” and New York after two climate collapses and sea level rise to where just about everything south of 46th Street is underwater. There’s a lot to be said for both books and both of them are worth reading if you are interested in speculative stories about computer culture or climate change.

The objection that nearly ruined both novels for me is a basic and essential misunderstanding of the “tragedy of the commons.”

Doctorow explains the tragedy this way:

“Commons. Common land that belongs to no one. Villages had commons where anyone could bring their livestock for a day’s grazing. The tragedy part is that if the land isn’t anyone’s, then someone will come along and let their sheep eat until there’s nothing but mud. Everyone knows that that bastard is on the way, so they might as well _be_ that bastard. Better that sheep belonging to a nice guy like you should fill their bellies than the grass goign to some selfish dickhead’s sheep…. The solution to the tragedy of the commons isn’t to get a cop to make sure sociopaths aren’t overgrazing the land, or shunning anyone who does it, turning him into a pariah. The solution is to let a robber-baron own the land that used to be everyone’s, because once he’s running it for profit, he’ll take exquisite care to generate profit forever.”

“That’s the tragedy of the commons? A fairy tale about giving public assets to rich people to run as personal empires because that way they’ll make sure they’re better managed than they would be if we just made up some rules? God, my dad must _love_ that story.”

“It’s the origin story of people like your dad,” Hubert, Etc said. “It’s obvious bullshit for anyone whose sweet deal doesn’t depend on it not being obvious.”

Robinson is much more succinct:
“But wherever there is a commons, there is enclosure.”

That’s just not accurate, something proved by the work of Elinor Ostrom who studied a Swiss village with a cow pasture commons that has been productively governed by rules that go back to 1517 and other similar examples of “governing the commons” in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, and Los Angeles. She won the economics Nobel for her work in 2009 and even Garrett Hardin, who originated the phrase “tragedy of the commons,” reportedly, modified his views to say that only an unregulated commons inevitably declines.

Ostrom and her associates have described how a common pool resource can be maintained, sustainably and restoratively with their
8 Principles for Managing a Commons
1. Define clear group boundaries.
2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

These rules actually work and are more fully explored in Ostrom’s Nobel Lecture which is well worth listening to or reading:

Unfortunately, not enough people are familiar with her work. Even Paul Krugman wrote when Ostrom became a fellow Nobelist, “I wasn’t familiar with Ostrom’s work, but even a quick scan shows why she shared the prize: if the goal is to understand the creation of economic institutions, it’s crucial to be aware that there is more variety in institutions, a wider range of strategies that work, than simply the binary divide between individuals and firms.”

We’re still stuck in that binary divide and I was disappointed that both Doctorow and Robinson, writers and thinkers whom I follow, missed a chance to break out of it.

The observation both writers alerted me to was about the delusions of the rich.

In Walkaway, the mega-rich are called zottas:

“They weren’t unpleasant to talk to — many were witty conversationalists. But there was something… off about them. It wasn’t until she’d had her crisis of conscience and walked away from Cornell that she’d been able to name it: they had no impostor syndrome. There wasn’t a hint of doubt that every privilege they enjoyed was deserved. The world was correctly stacked. The important people were at the top. The unimportant were at the bottom.”

“…they’re convinced they got to where they are because they’re evolutionary sports who deserve to be exalted above baseline humans, so they’re primed to believe anything they feel must be true.

Robinson’s New York 2140 is about how a flooded NYC, now a skyscraper Venice due to climate change, operates. A large part of that is real estate, as everything is about real estate in NYC, is also thinking about the delusions of the rich. He sees it in a particular aspect that fits with Doctorow’s thesis about the lack of impostor syndrome and has one character “coming to believe that arrogance was a quality not just correlated with but a manifestation of stupidity, a result of stupidity.” He also points out another home truth about the mega-rich, “You could say that at a certain point, power is more interesting than money. Once you’ve got enough money. You see that all the time.”

F Scott Fitzgerald: The rich are different than you and me.
Ernest Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.
Cory Doctorow: And no impostor syndrome.

Kim Stanley Robinson: With arrogance bordering on stupidity.

Robison reminds us that even when the good guys win the day “there was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear.”

That’s why neither of these books is a utopia or a dystopia but just another world where it’s one day after another, a much more reasonable way to approach the future than imagining perfection or total collapse.