The Tragedy of the Coffee: Self Interest vs. the Common Good at a Coworking Space

By NextSpace on Apr. 11, 2016

In 1883 an English economist named

William Forster Lloyd published his lectures in pamphlet form because apparently that’s how we used to share ideas before Google, Facebook, and blogs on coworking websites.

In one, he introduced the idea that a communal resource can be depleted by overuse. The cautionary tale describes a shared pasture where a community grazes their cattle. A few people figure out they can add to their herd without everyone having a cow over it (sorry, not sorry). More people catch on until one day the pasture has been totally overgrazed and no one can have any cows at all.


If our coworking space is a commons

 then I propose overgrazing manifests itself most often in the kitchen (still not sorry). It’s happened to all of us. In an attempt to satisfy our severe coffee addiction we grab an orange mug and give the handle on the carafe a firm push. But instead of a rush of liquid gold we hear a sad sputtering; that dreaded empty gargle! A disappointing realization sets in—someone took the last of the coffee without making a fresh pot.  

Ecological economist Garret Hardin would not be surprised by this predicament. He made the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons famous in his Science article of the same name in 1968. Building on the concepts first put forth by Lloyd, Hardin’s point is that if we all act rationally according to our own self- interest we behave contrary to the common good. He’s speaking in relation to a shared resource, mostly environmental and sustainability issues like fish populations or carbon pollution, but my point is if we can’t get coffee and dishes under control there’s no hope for these larger and more pressing problems.

And I think Hardin would agree. Because these challenges don’t have a technological solution, they require a re-prioritization of our self-interest in favor of the collective good. It requires us to stop when we take the last of the coffee, even though we are very busy, and make the next pot – which will not benefit us personally, but will be advantageous to our community as a whole. Therefore, developing attitudes of altruism is imperative to averting tragedy – both in the seemingly mundane (coffee) and in the most important arenas (climate change).

More Than Just a Coworking Space

A dish in the sink or an empty cup of joe may seem trivial, or they can be considered an opportunity to make our community stronger. And this is why NextSpace is so much more than just a coworking space. We are always working on developing our community. Our deeply ingrained values encourage the success of our members as well as a social consciousness that is needed now more than ever.

And so I’m hopeful that the real tragedies of the commons, the bigger issues of resources depletion and rampant pollution are solvable. But in the meantime we’ll work on keeping the coffee flowing and the dishes out of the sink so that no one has a cow over that dreaded sputtering-gurgle!

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Coworking Community Management 101: Finding Your Voice as a Space Manager

Apr. 11, 2016