Tragedy of the Commons

Our local supermarket is Waitrose.  I believe it is the largest of their branches in the UK.  They recently installed new barriers to the car park, which lead to an incident that demonstrates amply the tragedy of the commons.

It was a hazy early Saturday afternoon.  I’d normally do the weekly shop earlier in the day, but it had been more of a lazy start to the day that usual, you know how it goes, especially with three kids to deal with at the same time.  I’m afraid I do shop at Waitrose regularly, and I do drive a car to get there, and so it was that day.Berkhamsted Waitrose Car Park

It surprised me when approaching the car park that the usual lengthy queue was not present.  Where was everyone?  As I closed in on the new barriers, I started to see what was going on.

The car park was jammed full of cars.  Not just in the bays, but grid locked, engines humming, trying to find a space.  The staff were obviously having teething problems with the new barriers, which were up.  The barriers up, everyone had just driven in unthinking, and the chaos before me had ensued.

Not much point in ploughing on in, I thought.  I’ll wait here just outside the car park for a few cars to leave, to ease the situation.  Very sensible.  I switched my engine off.

A few minutes later, with no more cars adding to the mess in the car park, a few gaps in the traffic were starting to appear.  As had a small queue behind me.  I resolved to count five more cars out then I’d go in, and hope that the people behind me were awake enough not to all stream in in my wake.

I’d barely counted a couple of cars leaving before someone approached from behind.  An elderly gentleman leant down to my window.

“Are you having a problem?” he asked.  I explained about the faulty barriers, and my ploy to wait for the situation to ease before going in.  To be honest, I wasn’t surprised by his reaction – he started getting a little animated.  “There’s a queue behind you, you know!” he accurately pointed out.  I told him there should be a queue, if the barriers were working, and I’d wait a little longer.  He went back to his car in a huff.

Slightly to spite him, I waited for another five cars to leave (which was difficult to explain to the small enquiring voices from the back seat).  Found a space straight away.

What this little saga demonstrated to me was how blinkered and unthinking people can be in their daily lives, if all they do is concentrate on their own little piece of the overall jigsaw.  No wonder, I thought, that we are finding it so difficult to make the adjustments necessary to work together to reduce our impact on the future.

If we don’t realise that driving into a car park that is directly in front of us and is demonstrably over-full is a little on the stupid side, what chance have we got of realising that we are all collectively driving a massive wedge into our future and that of our children?

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke


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