A New Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons: In economics, the tragedy of the commons is the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to their long-term best interests. ~ Wikipedia

Have you ever been on a highway and there was a slow-down, with both lanes moving at a crawl… Then five minutes later you see a car on the side of the road with a tow truck, and every driver is slowing down to take a look, which is the reason the traffic slowed! Why is it necessary to slow down and see something that is not in the way of traffic? What were all the drivers expecting to see? ‘We’ have an incredible infactuation with seeing morbid things.

This doesn’t just happen on highways. A tragedy happens and people are glued to their televisions, and simultaneously on their computers, tablets and phones. And news media monopolies know this. They feed us like we are hungry vultures. We circle them, and they circle us… feeding us every gory detail to be sure that we stick around and feed on all they offer. This has manifested into a new kind of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, this one social-emotional rather than economic. We blindly follow the horrifying stories of news conglomerates, and worse yet, we become part of the conglomerate, Tweeting and Facebooking and blogging our perception of the tragic event.

This social-emotional tragedy of the commons works inversely to the economic one described above. Instead of there being a depletion of a shared resource, there is instead an overabundance of a unnecessary emotional resources: sadness and sorrow. Instead of ‘individuals, acting independendently and rationally according to each one’s self interest’, we act as a herd sheepishly and irrationally following our compassionate and empathetic hearts, not in self-interest… As it turns out, not in anyone’s best interest.

In my recent post ‘Care or Fear‘, I shared how we go on and perpetuate these negative emotions in our schools. Students can’t be kids anymore. Instead, they ‘need’ to be exposed to all that is sad and evil in the world. I’ve previously wondered why, “we tend to pay far more attention to people and things that are negative and annoy us than on the things we should be happy and appreciative about.”

Turn on the news and what do you see? Tragedy. You might, in an hour long program, see one ‘feel good’ news report. You will see sadness, destruction and loss (of property, of profit, of freedoms and rights, of life).


We know that things like school shootings and suicide increase after media coverage of such tragedies. I’m sure morbid interest led some of you to follow those links above, but they don’t link to examples, they link to research articles instead. I haven’t read the articles, just the abstracts, but they say enough:

“The development of a code of rules to report on these episodes, likely to attract the interest of the population for their bloody implications, could prevent the dissemination of cultural norms that encourage this behavior.” Antonio Preti, MD

“Conclusions regarding the possible reduction of imitative suicidal behaviour by influencing mass-media-reports are drawn. Experiences from the media campaign are presented, as well as considerations about further research.” E. Etzersdorfer & G. Sonneck

It didn’t take me long to find these papers. I’m sure a thorough search would find even better examples. The fact is that we know, both through research and from historical evidence, that glorified stories perpetuate the very sadness we are appalled by. But that doesn’t stop a major national magazine, MACLEAN’S, from glorifying a killer on their front cover page. I’ve shared the cover below, but took some creative liberties with a red pen to prevent this very post from doing what I wish others wouldn’t.

Maclean's cover, June18, 2012
Do we really need to glorify killers?

When I see a cover page like this, I’m left wondering what we truly value in our society?

Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo’, whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness in equality
Instead of spreading love we’re spreading animosity
Lack of understanding, leading us away from unity


Indeed we have a new, social-emotional, tragedy of the commons. Despite our understanding that perpetuating the onslaught of negative news is, ‘contrary to [our] long-term best interests’, we still do it. And social media isn’t making things any better. We used to be able to blame the media monopolies and moguls, but now we are the news-makers: We publish freely, and quickly and without thought as to how we are part of the problem.

If we truly want to share our love and compassion and empathy, then let’s do so in a way that will exemplify what we want to see, rather than glorify what we don’t want to see. Can we gather enough momentum to combat masses of people wanting the macabre details of tragic events? Or are we destined to see this new tragedy of the commons destroy our emotional well being? I will do my best to do my part. I hope you will do the same. But is that enough? Can we somehow implement rules for media to share bad news more responsibly? Can we change the world with a story that isn’t horrific and headline newsworthy? I hope so.

I shared this old Cherokee story just over 4 years ago. I share it again here as a reminder of the battle that ‘we’ are all fighting:

Two Wolves

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

“The other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

“The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person too.”

The grandson thought about this for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

And finally I leave you with the words I’ve shared in my email signature for years now… may these words guide us all away from tragedy:

Think Good Thoughts, Say Good Words, Do Good Deeds.


13 comments on “A new tragedy of the commons

  1. Media coverage, especially like the Macleans one above, infuriates me because all research points to the fact that this kind of sensationalism and fetishization of the KILLERS actually guarantees more will occur. It really is exploitation in the guise of journalism.

  2. My facourite writer, G. K. Chesterton, said that we moderns only know good because we have a withering knowledge of evil. I repesented a paper related to this and Columnia U some years back. Our modenr heroes are anit-heroes and dont really give us good models. Moreover, we are always telling our students what not to do and instead of modeling virtue we list vices: don’t cheat, don’t be lazy instead of be honest, work hard. Incidentally, I stopped reading/listening to broadcast news a long time ago and now read online where I can be selective–not so much in what stories I read but selective in when I feel fortified enought to take on all the bad news. I’m still waiting for a good news station. Not anything naive–bad things happen and we can’t close our eyes to them–but a something that can be both positive and realistic. Funny, insit it, that when people say “get real” or “Let’s be realistic about this.” What they mean is let’s be pessimistic and negative about it.

    A great post for the new year, David. Thanks.


  3. Hi Dave,
    Like Brad, I also quit watching the news about two years ago. I don’t read newspapers. And also like Brad, I pick and choose when and where I’m going to go get my news coverage. Yet I don’t feel uninformed either – I still hear about important events and local news via my network. Sometimes on Twitter, sometimes through face to face interactions.

    So yes, people CAN stop slowing down and staring at the wreck – but most still do…

    In addition to our tendency to pay attention to the negative, I think tragedy tends to draw people in because it resonates so strongly with their fears.

    Years ago now, a friend’s daughter died in a freak accident. And I found it absolutely devastating. http://www.iwasthinking.ca/2007/10/14/a-child-died/
    While I knew the child a little and it was incredibly sad, I also noticed that my reaction was significantly out of proportion to how close I was to the tragedy.

    What I realized was that the death was highlighting my fears that I wasn’t being the parent my children needed me to be. There were things I needed to learn and take care of – and if, in that moment, I’d had to face the death of one of my own children, I would have been crushed by knowing that I’d failed them.

    My friends’ tragedy was a wake-up call for me. I realized that I had to change things, and I have been.

    When tragedy strikes, like the ones we’ve seen over the last few months, people everywhere are emotionally drawn in – wanting to know more, reacting well beyond “reasonable” and insatiably curious about what happened. Perhaps in a hope that they can do something different with their own children. Or to find out the ways that their situation is different (and not as risky). Don’t we all want to somehow have “guarantees” that it “can’t happen to me”?

    As long as that fear and need exists (and it always will, because parenting and life are fraught with uncertainty), then it will be difficult to change the hold that mass media has on these stories and on people’s attention.

    Unless we can get the message out that this way of acting is hurting our children even MORE. People will move through their own discomfort, only when they have a good reason. That’s only human. So how can we give them reason?

    The Vancouver School Board Chair tried to raise concerns about media coverage of suicide, and seemed to get blasted for speaking up.

    I’d say we need to consider how to speak up about this and resonate with something different – not an immobilizing fear, hopelessness and overwhelm. But with the inspiration to act and do something different. For the good of our children. For hope.

    Truly, I think hope is the biggest thing this world needs. We have too much fear and shame – and we’ve seen where that leads. It’s not what we want for ourselves nor our children.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to capture a dark side of self publishing capabilities. I must admit the “Newsmaker of the Year” saddened me.

  5. I’ve been holding off on commenting here because I planned to write a post about the good things that we should pay attention to… Like the amazing video that Dennis shared above (which I saw years ago, and enjoyed just as much the second time). I’m still going to write that post, but not for a little while, and so I just wanted to say a quick thanks to everyone for commenting.
    I think we can create a culture that finds happiness and joy as things to focus on and hold on to. Yes, sad things will happen. They will be hard to make sense of, whether it’s a madman with a weapon hurting others, or a freak accident taking a child from us. We will need to mourn those incidence when they occur and strike a chord with us. But I think we can also find countless reasons to share positive things and I hope those that those of you that read my blog will hold me to that! 🙂

    1. Look. No one is being naive he; bad things happen. But I think it entirely possible to mourn without being negative, to rage without being negative. Think Dylan Tomas, Do Not Go Gently. There is no negativity or bitterness in that poem. On the contrary, rage and fierce tears are ennobling. Negativity can never be so.

      I’ll quote Chesterton at length from his marvelous little book Orthodoxy at length, saving us the trouble of jumping about:

      The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

  6. Great piece David ! Thx. I agree with your thesis completely. In fact, I’m even finding myself slide into the negative herd more than ever. I catch myself but still feel anguish when I’m caught thinking cynical or hopeless. Ironic isn’t it with all our tools that we may be more connected yet not communicate. Connectivity does not make creativity or collaboration- perhaps it impedes it? When information is milled and spat out so quick without processing. Social media in many ways makes the news media more careless not better informed. Love your blog! Thanks!

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