8.2. Social Movements and the Tragedy of the Commons

Too many overlapping organizations compete for the same pool of funders and followers.

With any good cause, the thing that’s most lacking is resources.

We need more people, more money, more capabilities to do the good we want to do.

As a result, leaders, organizers, and committed followers have learned to always be pressuring people to get involved.

Sometimes, of course, they do this directly. They fundraise. They publicize. They protest. They collaborate with allies, and try to convince you that your values compel you to get involved.

But they also keep up the pressure in indirect ways.

They carefully craft narratives with clear good guys and bad guys, clear victims who are suffering hardship at the hands of the bad guys, and a clear way that your time and money can help stop this victimization from happening.

They tie even seemingly unrelated issues back to their cause, spread rumors about impending doom unless major action is taken, and plot how to squeeze every bit of action they can out of their less committed supporters.

Doing all that makes sense to them. And it gets better results…for their particular organization.

But when thousands of organizations are doing this, bombarding people with bad news and apocalyptic predictions…it leads to burnout among the public.

They either quickly get tapped out, and have nothing left to give—or they get fed up with all of it, and learn to ignore even the best, most worthy causes.

This is a situation that’s often called a “tragedy of the commons.”

It’s named after the common land that used to be available in the British Isles for everyone to let their livestock graze—until everybody depleted it through overgrazing.

Now, it’s an analogy used whenever a bunch of people who share a common resource act in their own self-interest to try to take advantage of it as much as they can—but this collective behavior ultimately ends up depleting the resource, and being bad for the whole group.

In the field of social justice, the depleted resources are people: their time, energy, money, and psychological health.

It’s in every individual organization’s interest to keep up the pressure, and squeeze as much out of people as they can—but when thousands of organizations, many of which have similar or overlapping missions, are doing this…people get apathetic, cynical, resistant, or burnt out.

It creates a vicious cycle, where pushy tactics make people more resistant…and then even pushier tactics are used to try to break through those defenses…which makes people even more resistant, and so on.

It also creates another vicious cycle, where uncommitted people see how negative, burdened, and burnt out do-gooders often become, and think to themselves: “I don’t want to feel like that!” Which makes them less likely to pitch in…and ultimately makes the people who are in the thick of things carry an even heavier load, and get even more burnt out.

Social justice organizations need to deal with this “tragedy of the commons” situation.

The constant outrage, pressure, and competition among themselves is depleting the resources we need to change the world for the better.

Whether or not we can figure out how to better manage these resources may well end up being the difference between success and failure for many, many good causes.


This is the 126th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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