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Panic Buying and Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons

With the first cases of #COVID19 in the United States also came the mass buying of toilet paper. The first commercially available toilet paper came about in 1857 as Gayetty's medicated paper. The free Sears and Robuck Catalogs (because why would you pay for something that you are literally going to use to wipe your bottom with?) were also popular for post-defecation cleaning.


What did people do without toilet paper? Bidets originated as small bowls seated in a stool used for cleaning one's undercarriage. They've been around longer than toilet paper--since the 1700s. Of course there's the ubiquitous washable cloth rag (or "family cloth"). For the rest of human history other items (leaves? corncobs? seashells?) were used for the purposes of cleanliness post defecation.


So, why did everyone go out and start buying toilet paper? What does toilet paper have to do with a novel respiratory illness? Well...not much. It is, however, an example of a phenomenon called Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons. In a shared-resource system (like the grocery store or the common kitchen at your workplace or a fishery) if everyone acts in their own interest rather than for the common good, eventually resources needed by all will be lost by all. If everyone takes exactly what they need, the resource is preserved. If you're out of toilet paper and buy the typical amount for your family (and everyone does the same), then the resource is preserved. Supply chains, manufacturers, and stores can handle the demand. If everyone takes extra toilet paper (illustrated by the extra fish in the video), then there suddenly isn't enough to go around anymore.


The #biologyeverywhere connection? Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons is typically taught in ecology units or ecology classes. Ecology is a sub-discipline of biology that studies the interconnectedness of life. Everything we do has a push-pull interaction with other humans around us (plus other organisms too, like the human-fish example in the video).


Check out the TED Ed talk below for more information--and think about resource sharing. After all things like having more #PPE (personal protection equipment, like masks) than you need definitely hurts others more than you needing to use an old t-shirt to clean up after you poop.




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