Tragedy of the commons in midst of power crisis
Found a wonderful real life example of the tragedy of commons I want to share.
I visited a relative who lives in an apartment complex in the southern outskirts of Chennai. His complex is subject to two hours of power cut between 4PM and 6PM everyday – as bad as that is, he was happy that just 5Km further south of him the city limits ended and power cuts were up to 6-8 hrs a day. The bigger problem with the apartment residents was the voltage. The fluctuations were really bad from the time the power came back on at 6PM to about 11PM. This was traced to the use of air conditioners. To overcome the voltage hurdle some of them had installed “double boosters” – two back to back step-up transformers. This caused even more voltage fluctuations leading my relative to claim that he suspected some flats were using “triple boosters” now. I dont know if such a thing even exists. The end result was this competitiveness helped no one as the voltage fluctuated to such a level that no booster helped and even normal household appliances like microwaves and refrigerators and computers struggled.
Now the apartment complex has a active association filled with retired busybodies like my relative who have drafted complex by-laws that rivals the Indian constitution. The voltage problem was crying for their help and they turned their attention to it. The path was clear – all people had to do was to shun the use of air conditioners till about 11PM – when the incoming voltage improved on its own. Everyone would be better off and be able to use all their appliances. So a diktat was passed down to that effect. No air conditioners from 6-11PM. How did this pan out ?
It worked for a first few days. The voltage situation improved dramatically and the resulted in a net improvement in living conditions for all. But soon some realized that the voltage now was good enough turn their airconditioners on. A few did and it had no noticeable impact on overall voltage. They were ignored by the association perhaps because turning on one or two airconditioners probably didnt impact voltage much- not sure what happened. So now just a couple were enjoying the fruits of a collective effort. Slowly others too started turning their air conditioners on until the magical point was reached where the overall voltage situation was back to miserable.
This was the best example I have seen of the tragedy of the commons. It actually quantifies the fruits of co-operation and its subsequent destruction. If anyone is interested you can check out the videos of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom who is the current leading expert on this issue. Also check out these links I blogged about earlier.
What are the ways the apartment complex could have dealt with it ?
- Socially ostracize free riders ? What if they dont care about socalizing ?
- Have a police wing ? What are the checks against abuse by them ? Who would join this force ?
Food for thought.