The Tragedy of the Commons, Toilet Paper, and You

Photo by Michael Jasmund on Unsplash

There’s an experiment that I stole from my thesis supervisor that I occasionally run with students as an activity in class. The idea behind the experiment is simple: I tell the students I have an extra 5% in bonus marks on an upcoming test, and that they can acquire a portion of this prize depending on the way they choose to play the game. The 5% is meant to represent a scarce natural resource, and their response is meant to simulate the use of that resource. I usually instruct students to think of it as if they’re all fishing from the same pond.

Each student can choose one of the two options:

  1. Exploit – take the maximum amount of the finite resource that they can.
  2. Sustainable use – split the resource evenly among the whole class/community.

If all the students chose the sustainable use option, they equally split the prize, and a second round commences in which students have an opportunity to repeat the experiment and earn even more bonus marks. The second round is meant to simulate the way that renewable natural resources, such as lumber, fish, etc. can be used basically indefinitely if responsibly managed.

If one or more students selfishly decide to maximize their take from the resource pool by choosing the exploit option, the total is split among only those students who selected exploit, and everyone who chose to responsibly use the resource misses out.

Without fail, every single time at least one student chooses to exploit the resource.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Of course this is the result I want as their instructor. It provides an opportunity to show students a little about greed and human nature. It also makes a great transition into discussion of the tragedy of the commons, and the way humans tend to exploit greedily, with less concern for the big picture. If we all take as many fish as we can get, eventually, there simply won’t be any fish left to reproduce and maintain the stock. We do not seem to mind the consequences of our actions being felt by others.

This might be starting to sound a little like the issue we’re having with toilet paper.

In response the COVID-19 pandemic, and in anticipation of potential for quarantines people are stocking up on necessities. And rightfully so! It would be awfully foolish to not be prepared in the event a state of emergency closes down businesses.

That said, the obsession with buying (literally) hundreds, and hundreds of rolls of toilet paper is absolutely insane. There should be more than enough toilet paper in this city to go around, even if households are in quarantine for a period of a month.

But there isn’t. As a result of the perception, or fear, of scarcity stores are sold out citywide. We have manufactured the very scarcity we feared. Worse, it’s transformed into a vicious cycle. With media outlets reporting about the widespread shortages, you can bet the next time a rational consumer (i.e who initially purchased a reasonable amount of toilet paper) sees toilet paper available, they’re going to stock up, in response to the actual scarcity we now face. We’ve transformed the situation to one where you either over do it, or miss out all together.

The worst part of all this, is those with limited transportation and accessibility (think elderly people) are the ones who are missing the opportunity to get the essential product, compounding the fact that they are already the population most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19.

A site familiar all over North America after panicked consumers bought out supplies of toilet paper. Photo by D.D.Teoli Jr on WikiCommons

And there really shouldn’t be any shortage. In a piece in the Globe and Mail, the CEO of Kruger products (makers of Cashmere and Purex toilet paper) is quoted as saying that they are manufacturing toilet paper at maximum capacity, without any plans to change the price of the products despite the increased demand. Basically, the supply chain of toilet paper from manufacturer to consumer should be uninterrupted in the coming days and weeks. There will be plenty of toilet paper once they have caught up with the blip of overbuying, and those with years worth of toilet paper to store will feel a little bit foolish that they prevented their fellow residents from having a basic necessity.

Photo by Lazar Gugleta on Unsplash

A useful mental model for the way that the manufactured scarcity of toilet paper becomes a vicious cycle is the choice faced in the prisoners dilemma.

In the prisoners dilemma, you and another suspect are brought in for questioning about a crime you’ve committed. You are separated, and are therefore unable to know what your accomplice is saying to the authorities. Both of you are given the option of giving up the other in exchange for a lighter sentence. Neither of you know that without a confession, they likely will be unable to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The model below depicts the four possible outcomes of this situation.

As you can see, the ideal scenario for both would be not giving up the other, as united they stand the best chance of achieving reasonable doubt and going free. The worst possible outcome for one of the suspects is holding their tongue, only to have their accomplice rat them out forcing them to face the full penalty of their crime. Thus creates a scenario where it is logical to sell out your accomplice and receive a fairly good outcome for yourself in order to prevent yourself from becoming “the sucker”.

To translate this model for the current “Toilet Paper Dilemma”, I pit two hypothetical shoppers against each other. This is obviously a major simplification of reality, but it’s still a helpful model to understand the choice consumers are faced with.

So when you walk into the store and by some miracle you’re actually faced with a supply of toilet paper, you also face a choice. You could be selfish, act as an individual and buy the store out of their supply in an attempt to prevent the worst possible outcome for yourself, or you can act in a way that ensures everyone gets what they need.

So please, buy an appropriate amount of toilet paper, even if you’re worried. It’s understandable that people act more selfishly in times where they feel in danger, but consider the nature of the threat facing us. Making sure you don’t get the infection is not enough, this is a threat that faces everything from our supply chains, to our stock markets, to our education, to our entertainment, and the only way to make sure you are safe is to reduce the rate of transmission through our world. Hoarding soap for example, might ensure your hands are clean, but if nobody else’s are, I don’t like your chances. The number of others that are vulnerable to contracting the disease directly impacts your own probability of contracting COVID-19.

This is all to say that our fates are deeply entangled.

If we can’t learn to be reasonable and unselfish about something like toilet paper, what chance do we possibly stand at beating this threat to our way of life?

Oh, and anyone stealing face masks from health care professionals… get your act together. A pandemic is no excuse to behave like a Neanderthal.


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Neighbourhood Watch (or: how I learned to stop worrying and log off)

Photo by Rene B√∂hmer on Unsplash

You’re out for a late night stroll, and walking down Algonquin St. you pass by a suspicious looking character. The man begins walking, inches from your side, seemingly unaware of the unsettling nature of this.

“Uh… How’s it going?” you ask awkwardly.

“Fine.” He replies.

You feel uneasy, you speed up. He is a few feet behind you now at least, but it’s clear that he’s making an effort at keeping pace. You’re approaching your next turn.

Do you take it? Would you rather be home sooner or avoid leading this unsettling character to your house?

You take the turn, and slow up. He follows you around the corner. You’re two streets from home.

What do you do?

This actually happened to me a few months back. I slowed down to the point where he had to pass me. I perceived he was still gauging the distance between us. I pretended I’d be making the next turn, he slowed as if to follow me, and I continued forward. The next turn was home, and I had made up my mind to get there as fast as possible.

I cross my road, walking as if I’m to continue forward. As soon as he turns his head after checking my trajectory, I turned and hustled down my street. Behind me I heard him stop, and he too turned down my street, despite just having attempting to convince me that he would be continuing down the street we were on. I hurried across my yard, up the front porch, and I unlocked the door to safety.

Whether his intentions were nefarious or not, he made me uneasy, and feel unsafe in my own neighbourhood. I think I reacted well, I’m not really sure. Do you call the Police on someone for being awkward if it makes you uneasy?

Honestly, I just felt less safe in North Bay that night and it really, really bummed me out.

Crime statistics in most cities vary to a degree year by year, small fluctuations observable along with the longer term trends in the rise and fall of crime recorded. However, the ultimate consideration of whether a city is safe largely lies in the feelings and perceptions held by its residents. Regardless of what the statistics say, people’s personal experience and relative exposure to crime will shape their perceptions on whether or not they feel safe.

Technology complicates the equation further. While communications advances in the internet age have supplied law enforcement officers with better tools with which to keep us safe, it has also fundamentally changed the way information about crime travels throughout a population. With social media, “word of mouth” has some serious range, and this can pose a real challenge in helping a city’s residents feel safe.

The neighbourhood watch Facebook groups for the city of North Bay (of which there are at least 3) and the evolution of their content demonstrates this. They also provide a concerning window to the minds of residents who have become frustrated with crime in the city, and have lost faith in the system all together.

The two main “neighbourhood watch” groups on Facebook. A third group is called “boots on the ground”.

The groups currently operating emerged between 2017-2018. Initially, the groups were online communities where members could share incidents of crime as they experienced them, spreading awareness of ongoing crime in North Bay. Most of the early posts were about attempted (and successful) break and enters, warnings of suspicious people trying car doors at night, stolen bikes, news stories about crime from local outlets, you get the idea.

Sharing information about crime activity is a pretty smart and efficient way for citizens to feel they are mitigating the risk of crime. One of the first things many victims of crime do upon discovering they’ve been wronged is to warn neighbours of the situation. These online groups are simply the same strategy with a larger range.

Becoming aware of ongoing incidents helps citizens to adjust their actions accordingly, and reduce the risk of themselves becoming a victim. You see a post about people breaking into cars, you double check that yours is locked that night, simple as that.

According to a recent McLeans study on crime in Canada, North Bay does have higher rates of ‘assault’, ‘sexual assault’, ‘break and enters’ and ‘cocaine trafficking’ than the provincial average. Obviously this is concerning, but when one considers the city’s geographical position as a gateway to the North, Western Canada as well as Northern Quebec, the idea that drugs would travel through and be prevalent in our city is really not overly surprising.

Comparison of rates of crime in North bay with the Ontario average (Data sourced from McLeans 2019 Crime Report)

As the groups evolved, other promising new types of posts emerge: promising efforts at making the community better, like food drives, found and lost items, and needle cleanups. So the group makes people more aware of crime, and organizes community based initiatives, what’s the deal?

The deal, from my perspective, is the thin line between awareness and paranoia.

There is plenty of evidence of group members flaunting extremely pessimistic attitudes towards the city’s law enforcement. In particular, the summer of 2019 saw the groups explode into contentious arguments on posts in the group about how the crime wave in North Bay was being handled by law enforcement. Posts riddled the groups about drug users and vagrants invading the city and stealing anything they could to get their next fix. In the context of a serious opiod crisis in our country, this brought the various perspectives held by members of the groups to light in discussions on the posts. Some members are very compassionate towards addicted, while others flaunt overtly violent and dehumanizing sentiments about their very existence.

Compare the post about understanding the human level of addiction issues (left) with the comment where ‘people’ is literally put in quotation marks to imply they aren’t worthy of the title (above). (Screenshots from North Bay and Area Neighbourhood Watch *Crime Watch* Facebook Group)

Up until late August of 2019, I was a member of these groups. I found myself concerned at the number of posts, so much crime, and a city, my home, seemingly slipping into despair. That is until I realized the way the exposure to these posts were impacting my perception of what I was seeing in my day to day life. I was finishing my masters thesis at the time and was home during the day on most days. Working on the front porch, I realized I was theorizing about the potentially nefarious motives of every passerby.

The group itself had evolved in much the same fashion. The constant exposure to nothing but local bad news bred paranoia. Posts with clear and evident wrongdoing had been replaced with posts describing anyone walking at night as suspicious, even with literally no evidence that any wrongdoing was taking place. The sites were turning the people of North Bay against each other.

Posts like this one are a good use of the system. Unfortunately in many posts, there isn’t any clear cut type of wrongdoing. (Screenshot from North Bay and Area Neighbourhood Watch *Crime Watch* Facebook Group)

People had been exposed to powerful anecdotes. Now I don’t mean to assert that crime in the city isn’t a real problem, or even that we weren’t witnessing a spike in incidents, but the stories told by victims of crimes, and the increase in exposure to these stories had a powerful impact on the mindset of groups members. Speaking for myself, I certainly found my perspective had been shaded for the worse, and I simply didn’t feel safe going for the late night walks through North Bay’s streets I had so come to enjoy over the past few years. Like I said, the balance between awareness and paranoia is a delicate one. Notions like “if you see something, say something” sound like a great, proactive way to prevent crime. In reality, they often devolve into slogans for pitting citizens against each other, fostering climates of suspicion and paranoia.

Equally concerning are the sentiments expressed in the groups about law enforcement itself. For example, on a post about a couple that experienced sexual harassment walking home one night, one user commented:

“right off the hop, defend yourselves, as by the time police respond you could be dead, last time I used the police and judicial system it failed me miserably, there won’t be a next time I call the police for help”

(All spelling and grammar errors are preserved from the original facebook comment. Username withheld.)

While the idea of being capable of self defence isn’t crazy at all, the idea that you wouldn’t ever contact the police in an emergency is a terrible sentiment to be spreading. This person obviously had a negative experience, fair enough. Police respond to thousands of calls a year, and satisfaction is never going to be 100%. For that to be posted as part of the dialogue, however, as if it were somehow as valid as other opinions is, well, sort of laughable.

An additional problem comes from the inner workings of Facebook itself. The platform’s algorithm for the exposure of comments on posts is dependant on the activity they generate in the form of replies and reactions. Under this system, posts that generate controversy and active (and often toxic) debate are equally exposed to those that are widely agreed with. Is this balance? In my opinion the fringe positions (that can often be quite troubling) receive far too much exposure on the Facebook platform.

In the context of Neighbourhood Watch groups, you could see this issue with system, as it fosters extreme negative views about the city’s law enforcement by presenting them in the same manner that more reasonable opinions would be. The groups facilitate the impression that many people have lost faith in the system, regardless of the reality of whether or not the average North Bay citizen can expect quick and effective responses from their police force.

By the time I left the groups near the end of last summer, I was absolutely exhausted by their content. The arguments had become filled with vitriol. Worse was that beyond the discourse heating up, the actual actions of group members had become pretty concerning.

The homeless had set up communities of “tent cities” around North Bay. Some members of the group decided that they were absolutely sure the homeless were responsible for particular crimes (note their actions were unsanctioned by the groups administrators). They sought to reclaim stolen property and seek retribution by raiding the camps while their residents were not around. Whether these members were correct or not in their assumptions, their vigilantism represents a lack of faith that law enforcement would solve their issues, and ultimately keep them and their property safe.

Personally, I detest this sort of reaction. To perpetrate crime, and forgo the system completely in the name of stopping crime sounds something like fighting fire with fire to me. The general lack of understanding of addictions and homelessness is also very concerning, and many seem to discount these peoples experience, and to a large degree, dehumanize them. Additionally, while some perpetrators of crimes may be homeless, as North Bay’s Police Chief Tod points out, many of the victims of these vigilantes were likely innocent and down on their luck. Talk about salt in a wound.

They are not always associated with drug use or criminal activities some are related to poverty and homelessness… There are criminals who are actually taking advantage of people who are living in a vulnerable situation”

North Bay Police Chief Tod on tent cities. (Dawson, August 23, 2019) Police Chief says tent cities not just a North Bay problem

One major feature of the 2019 “crime wave” was a ton of stolen bicycles. Bike thefts are difficult for law enforcement, because without a report that the bike is stolen including the serial number by a responsible owner, there’s really not much that can be done. Even if this is done, bike thieves often aim to break the bikes down to sell the metal, or reassemble with various parts to sell, making the original bicycle hard to track. All this meaning the bikes in their functioning state don’t necessarily last long after their disappearance. The group showed lots of evidence of people bringing larger quantities of bikes than would be practical for personal use to locations, which the groups called “bike chop shops”, where they would presumably meet their demise.

I bring this particular aspect up because it shows how timeless the issue truly is, in spite of the modern technology and its impact of our experience of it. By the discourse in the group, you’d truly think the brazen bike thefts represented a new era of crime in the city. In the book The Beat Light: North Bay Police History 1882-2007 by Wayne Lebelle and Victor McClenaghan however, I found the following:

“In 1969, the Department investigated 1,438 cases of theft, deemed much like the cases of stolen bicycles 75 years earlier. “Many citizens are careless with their moveable property and it seems there are more and more people in our community that would rather steal the things they want, than buy them”

Chief Wotherspoon quoted in (Lebelle & McClenaghan, 2009) The Beat Light: North Bay Police History 1882-2007

For the record, that a 50 year old quote from a police chief about the same problem we’re having today. As a bonus, it references the prevalence of the phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century as well.

As much as things change, they really do stay the same.

The groups still operate and members are very active. Many well meaning members do make a difference in the community through outreach. Positives aside however, the fact that the groups had a profound role in the emergence of vigilantism in North Bay raises both concerns and questions:

What could North Bay Police do better to prevent the erosion of public confidence?

What is an appropriate response for citizens to crime in their communities?

What stands between us and North Bay feeling safer?

What role can law enforcement play in addressing the opiod crisis?

and, more central to the point I’m trying to make here:

How do we find a way to balance awareness and paranoia when it comes to local crime?

I know I can’t answer these questions, but I do know that as a community, it’s important that we actively deliberate and consider them, because our community will inevitably become what we build it to be.


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Through The Gateway

North Bay has always been a transportation hub, and is rightully nicknamed the “Gateway to the North” (Public Domain Image: WikiCommons)

I arrived in North Bay as a Nipissing student in 2011, and like any student, I had an relatively weak relationship with the city. As students, we occupy the space, but we often don’t consider the history of the area, and given the temporary nature of post-secondary education, few consider the future. But hey, some of us decide to stick around.

Living on campus my first year in North Bay, I really didn’t have to engage with the city at all, aside from cab rides downtown, shuttle bus rides to the grocery store, and the occasional movie. That year, I may has well have said that I lived at Nipissing rather than in North Bay. In my seven following years as a student, I may have engaged more with the city, now living off campus, by my connection to the city is still hasn’t grown particularly strong.

Like many residents, I have a tendency to shop at chain stores and restaurants that exist just about everywhere. Thats not to say I don’t have a few favourite local flavours, but overall, the way I live doesn’t make me feel like a resident of North Bay in particular, rather a resident of Anytown, Ontario.

That said, there’s a reason I’m still here. I love the area, I love the spectacular and ever-present natural atmosphere provided by the escarpment, forests, and lakes which surround our city. One of the greatest experiences in my entire life was biking on the Kate Pace Way, when a doe ran parallel with me alongside the trail, almost close enough that I could touch it. I was in awe that my path and natures had crossed so profoundly. These moments don’t just take place anywhere. Let’s face it, they can’t.

And the people of North Bay, for the most part, are lovely, hardworking people. There’s a gas station attendant at Esso that loves to compare his beloved Oakland A’s to my Blue Jays. There’s friendly Leafs/Habs banter with the owner at burger world (who is unfortunately a Habs fan). While random sports talk certainly isn’t unique to our city, these regular, unplanned social interactions create a feeling of home. Like the movies where the protagonist has their regular spots and interactions in his city, and you get the sense that the characters familiarity with their setting.

North Bay: Pretty, gritty, or both?

And yet, there’s certainly a grit to the city that can be a little off putting, and even (I’ll admit), a little embarrassing as a transplant. There are large areas marred with unkempt properities, there are parking lots you know not to pass through at night (looking at you Tim’s on Cassells). The cities reputation, both from the inside and outside perspective, is at a crossroads. The city is rich with history, but needs direction and a renewed sense of modernity as the 21st century marches on.

As an 8 year resident of the city, I’m more than willing to admit I have absolutely no clue what that direction should be. I studied here for 8 years and while I’ve learned a great deal about the world in these studies, I neglected the study of the place most integral to my own day to day life. While classes like African Geography provided me with enriched understandings of global contexts, the notion of ‘local’ seemed genuinely inconsequential as a student.

I’ve studied here, but I haven’t studied here.

As I’ve grown as a community member, I realize it is of the upmost importance to me to help better my community. I’ve attempted this through truly caring about students in my professional life, volunteering with after school groups, and freelance work with local leaders on educational initiatives. And yet I still feel disconnected from the city. I feel a desire to better understand my surroundings, to become more in touch with the setting in which my own life takes place.

Living on campus at Nipissing provides a buffer between students and the North Bay community (Public Domain Image: WikiCommons)

I don’t think this scenario is particularly unique at all. Many people my age find themselves rather ignorant to local politics, local histories, and current events and issues of their community. People can now seek community online, forming bonds by interests regardless of their geographical location. A strong sense of local community and identity have been, at least in part, eroded by our modern world.

We are bombarded by media, and its sometimes easier to tune out than to pay attention. I’ve personally found apathy clouding my worldview recently, and something like the ongoing issues in a small city in Ontario seems pretty irrelevant when compared to major issues in world politics. Local issues receive less and less of our concern, until eventually, they’re of no concern at all.

As a way to understand North Bay better, I’ve made it my goal to learn about our city.

The Gateway is the manifestation of that goal. Together, we’ll explore the interesting history of North Bay, the current issues and events of the city, and future challenges and how best to face them.

Photo by Steve Philpott on Unsplash

We aim to stay positive, and solution oriented in this commentary so this doesn’t become a collection of rants about North Bay. At the heart of this is a goal to help people take pride in their community, and carefully consider the direction of the city moving forward. How can we make North Bay a better place to live? How can the city change in a way that enhances our happiness?

North Bay has a rich history to learn from, and a bright future to look forward to if we are deliberate about its growth and change. The time to consider that change is now. So whether you’re a newcomer to the city, a born and raised townie, or a student who stuck:

Welcome to The Gateway.


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