“We can never do nothing… the status quo is action”

I knew the phrase “tragedy of the commons” but had never realised it was taken from an article published in December 1968 of that name. The article is by Garrett Hardin; though its basis is in population and demography, it is widely applicable in, well, everything.

A full, free copy of The Tragedy of the Commons is available from Science.

There are two passages from the article that particularly resonated with me.

The first is that there are some issues to which there are not “technical solutions”.

[T]here is no technical solution to the problem. An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.

This is, of course, right. As Hardin implies, some issues require change in humans themselves to take hold before any benefits from a possible solution follow.

The second is on the status quo and reform:

It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. [Defenders] of the status quo sometimes imply that no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact… Automatic rejection of proposed reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (i) that the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the choice we face is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we wait for a perfect proposal.

But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years is also action. It also produces evils. Once we are aware that the status quo is action, we can then compare its discoverable advantages and disadvantages with the predicted advantages and disadvantages of the proposed reform, discounting as best we can for our lack of experience.

This feels to me to be an incredibly valuable insight. Even if we choose not to act, we are acting.

Do read the full article: it is well worth the investment of time.


Published by


Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

One thought on ““We can never do nothing… the status quo is action””

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s