The Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons (TOC) is not widely known or understood, except among people who have studied environmental science.  The depletion of fishery stocks and whale populations are graphic examples of the idea.  Here is how Wikipedia defines it:
The metaphor illustrates how free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately structurally dooms the resource through over-exploitation. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to the point in which they become reliant on it, while the costs of the exploitation are distributed among all those to whom the resource is available…This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball to the point in which the resource is exhausted.”

Here is the classical example that is often used to illustrate the TOC:

“Picture a pasture, open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

“As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.
“1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly + 1.

“2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-¬making herdsman is only a fraction of – 1.

“Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd…and then another…and another.  But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

This contradicts Adam Smith’s theory that an individual who, even though he seeks only personal gain, is led by an “invisible hand” to take actions that promote the public interest.  Smith wrote this in his book, “The Wealth of Nations” published in 1776, but the idea is still in vogue today, particularly among advocates of free markets and deregulation.

Modern examples of the Tragedy of the Commons include the international fisheries, and, in earlier times, the whaling industry.  The Grand Banks fishery, one of the richest fisheries in the world, went into steep decline starting in about 1990.  This was the result of the development of large “factory” ships and improved detection systems using sonar, resulting in greatly increased catches.  The economies of Newfoundland and Labrador were dependent on fishing, and have suffered greatly from the decline.  The fishermen knew what was happening, but were absolutely powerless to stop it.
In the 19th century, whaling drove many whale species to near-extinction.  Only the eventual scarcity of the animals prevented total extermination, when the cost of hunting them exceeded their commercial value.  Since then, some whale populations have partially recovered, but efforts to limit whaling have met stubborn opposition. Nations like Japan continue to take whales for “research” purposes…a thinly disguised excuse for continued harvesting of endangered species.  Most nations have stopped whaling operations, but as long as some continue, whale populations are threatened…and the TOC still applies its deadly logic.

Drawdown of the Ogallalla Aquifer, the huge freshwater reservoir underlying the Great Plains is another example.  Farmers started large-scale irrigation in the 1950’s, sinking wells into the aquifer to obtain water to irrigate their crops.  The Ogallala Aquifer is currently being depleted at a rate of 12 billion cubic meters per year.  From 1980 to 1995 the water level dropped by as much as 40 feet in some areas.  Some estimates predict it will dry up in as little as 25 years.3  If that happens, our nation will lose one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world.

Consider the atmosphere.  Instead of depletion of a resource, in this case it is degradation.  We all must breathe the air that envelops our planet in a thin layer, only about 100 miles thick.  But every nation dumps millions of tons of pollutants, mostly products of combustion, into it.  Our nation, representing 5% of the world population, emits a quarter of the total carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, and substantial quantities of many other toxic gases:  particularly oxides of sulfur and nitrogen.
How much damage are these emissions doing to the “habitability health” of our planet?  Nobody knows the quantitative answer, but scientists know that, in addition to global warming, these emissions cause acid rain that is killing boreal forests, and is responsible for increases in many human diseases.

Other nations are contributing their share to the toxic cocktail.  Only recently, have international efforts been initiated to limit global emissions, and, predictably, the efforts have been largely ineffective.  The TOC is at work!  Limiting harmful emissions is costly, so national economies are affected.  No nation wants to be the first or make a larger sacrifice than the others…so no meaningful action is taken.

In the case of world fisheries, when the stock of a given species (e.g., cod) was depleted, the fishermen moved on, in typical cowboy fashion, to the next pasture (species).  The process continues to this day.  Eventually, all harvestable species will be driven to extinction, and we will lose an important food source forever.

In the case of the atmosphere, though, there is no “next pasture.”  When we destroy this one…the only one…we will perish.    This common atmosphere is one huge “commons” that we and all other living things share.  Its ability to absorb the effluents of an exploding human population is limited, and all indications are that we are approaching that limit, if we have not already exceeded it.

It is time to start thinking of the entire earth as a “commons.”  As John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”  We are all connected to each other, and to every other living thing on the earth.  Every action that we take affects everyone and everything else.  Will we recognize this in time to prevent the Tragedy of the Commons from becoming the cause of our own extinction?
————————- NOTES ———————-
1. “Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin, pp 1243-1248
2.  If you would like more information on Adam Smith and his theories, I wrote an article in December of 2005 about the “invisible hand.”  Here is the link.
3.  Wikipedia – Ogallala Aquifer

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