a tragedy of the commons

September 22, 2022 •

6 min reading

A tragedy of the Commons at Chinese dining tables

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In economic science, the tragedy of the commons occurs when individual users, who have open access to a resource without shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action. The concept originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land in Great Britain and Ireland. But how does this apply to Chinese cultural table habits and ways of tackling food waste?

Tackling food waste in China

According to the 2021 UNEP Food Waste Index Report, food waste per capita in Chinese households ranges from 21 kg to 150 kg per year. Despite substantial variations between regions, food waste at the national level in China is astounding simply due to its massive population and accelerating urbanization that increases food consumption in public dining spaces. A 2017 study found that food waste per capita per meal at restaurants in four Chinese cities was 93 g, equivalent to 11 kg per capita per year. This number is very close to that of many developed countries, despite the fact that GDP per capita of China is much lower.

As early as 2013, a food-saving campaign called “Clean Your Plate” was initiated by the government to crack down extravagant feasts that had long been a norm among officials. The campaign was reinstated in 2020 by the central government to tackle food waste in public dining spaces. To submit to government policies, some restaurants directly intervened in consumers’ decision making by compelling people to order less or use smaller dishes or even dictate the order. Despite good intentions, this implies that consumers are incompetent in deciding how much they can eat and ignorant of food waste, while suppliers know better than consumers do. Regulation at the table, despite being done with goodwill, not only violates consumer sovereignty and freedom, but may have prescribed a wrong solution to food waste.


The culture of food sharing in China

Many policies aimed at eradicating food waste on the table have failed to address one key aspect of Chinese dining customs: food or dish sharing. In Chinese culture and philosophy, food is at the pinnacle of human needs, and sharing food is at the center of Chinese dining culture. Instead of partitioning food into each diner’s plate, dishes are placed on the table and are shared by everyone. Almost all Chinese table etiquette serves the purpose of food sharing. For instance, it is not uncommon to see round tables in Chinese restaurants that can seat a dozen of diners, plus a rotating turntable where a second layer of dishes can be placed. A round table is not only more convenient for the sharing of food, but, geometrically, it can place the largest number of dishes compared with a rectangular or square table with the same circumference. So, sharing food at a round table is actually economical.

Food sharing on the table is rooted deeply in collectivism and the hierarchical structure of the Chinese society. In various political or social contexts, people are required to have concerted and coordinated actions and follow strict rules. These social norms are eventually manifested at the table that focuses on sharing dishes. Yet food sharing is not peculiar to Chinese but widespread in many Asian countries which have more or less been influenced by Chinese culture and philosophy for centuries. Food sharing is also common in some Western dining contexts, in particular at buffet and cocktail parties, but they are different from sharing food at the table as Chinese do. Hence, the economic ramifications of table food sharing, especially in public dining spaces or formal dining contexts, are not the same.

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Property rights at the Chinese table

When a dish is placed on the table to be shared, it does not belong to anyone, so the property rights of the dish are not and cannot be defined. Namely, nobody has the full right to take it as their own, dispose it or trade it with others, but to share. This is in contrast to Western dining etiquette where each diner, despite sharing the table, orders his or her own dish and takes the full responsibility of their own plate. There is no real sharing of dishes.

Economic theory would predict that there will be the tragedy of the commons arising on the table. As each diner aims to maximize his or her own utility by taking more, the communal dish is devoured very soon with nothing left for the slower eaters. So, not only will there be no waste of food, but there should always be a shortage of food.  

This may sound absurd, but not to kids. Even if kids were taught by their parents that it is a virtue to leave something to their siblings, grappling with each other for food, candies, toys and so on will inevitably lead to a tragedy of the commons. This is why allocation of food, candies or toys by parents plays a pivotal role in preventing the tragedy from happening at home. The idea of allocating property rights by parents worked quite well in my childhood.


Understanding the tragedy of the commons

When sharing food on the table especially in formal dining, we tend to take a  smaller part than what we really need, to ensure others have a fair portion of the food. This gesture signals that we’re not only civilized, albeit irrational in an economic sense, but fully understand that the dish is communal. We have no right to take whatever we want. As everyone takes a portion smaller than what he or she desires, total consumption ends up being smaller than the quantity of the food that is supposed to be completed by all diners. This leads to another tragedy of the commons, which is not the shortage of food but a waste of food.

In Chinese dining etiquette, even if everyone has partaken of a communal dish, we intend to leave the last bit in the dish to signal to the host that our needs have been fully satiated. Once the last bit of food is gone, this signal is lost, which puts a tremendous social pressure on the host. So, each dish on the table ends up with some leftovers and this functions as a signal.

On the other hand, even if one believes that leftovers are not good, what a diner can do is finish off their own plate, because this is where he or she can execute the property rights of the food. In fact, having leftovers in one’s own plate is considered bad table manners for both adults and kids. However, If leftovers are in the communal dish, nobody is obliged to take responsibility for them, because they do not belong to anyone in the first place.

For this reason, food is more likely to be wasted in public dining spaces such as casual restaurants than at household dinner tables and in formal dining. In the latter cases, the property rights of food are well defined and so are the responsibility of the diner. The tragedy of food waste is exacerbated when dining with superiors or people you are not so acquainted with, since the social distance can further blur the boundary of property rights. The bigger the social distance between diners, the more hesitant people are to partake of the communal dish, leading to greater leftovers. Therefore, it is not surprising that food is usually wasted at wedding and birthday banquets or lavish parties where the social distance is notable.


To share or not to share?

I’m not arguing against food sharing but am proposing it should be done in a more efficient way. In fact, not only is sharing food one of the key ingredients of Chinese dining etiquette, but it is also a virtue in enhancing social bonding at the table. In the recent decade, the sharing economy spearheaded by Airbnb and Uber has made sharing penetrate almost every aspect of people’s private lives. If you can even share your living space with strangers, what else can't be shared?  

So, sharing is at all the issue. But we need to ensure that the last bit of food also be shared to avoid 'the tragedy of the commons' at the table. Since the reason that the tragedy of the commons happens is the undefined property rights of food, we could delegate the execution of the property rights to the waiter or waitress, who would portion the food into small pieces and allocate them to each diner. Then, the communal dish is privatized, and leftovers, if any, on one’s own plate become unfavorable. It has been a common practice especially at formal-dining restaurants that the waiter or waitress take the liberty of privatizing the food, because this reduces a wide range of disposal costs of food waste for restaurants.  


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