For those of you looking to expand your spinach heads, we have some food for thought today. Many of us are familiar with the concept of “the tragedy of the commons.” But I feel a little refresher will serve us well before digesting some of the philosophical nutrient nuggets we have in store. Let’s review, shall we?
In 1968, Garrett Hardin proposed an idea that has since become widely accepted in environmental thinking and explanations of environmental problems. The idea is economic in nature; it starts with the idea that individuals stand to do better for themselves by taking full advantage of resources, including shared or “common” resources. Common resources would be those such as public lands, waterways, and the air we all breathe. In viewing these resources from an individual perspective instead of a sustainability or group mindset, one has the propensity to exploit a resource. This concept is known as “the tragedy of the commons”—that in trying maximize personal gain, groups of individuals will drive a finite resource beyond its carrying capacity, or its level of sustainability. Hardin used this concept to explain the overgrazing by cattle farmers. In his words:
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 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 concept has been used today to describe many environmental issues from polluted air in Los Angeles to the depletion of global fisheries.
Now It’s Time to Expand Your Minds
As environmentally-conscious folk, we accept Hardin’s notion. It makes sense. Yet the other day, I stumbled across an alternative theory proposed by Patricia Marchak in her book Uncommon Property. A once abundant and prized resource, cod stocks have been overexploited and in some cases, such as Newfoundland, driven to depletion. Marchak argues that this situation is, against conventional wisdom, not a tragedy of the commons. How could that be?
Marchak argues that a fishery is not a true common resource. A country retain the rights to the oceans within 200 miles of its borders and possesses the management responsibilities associated with maintaining a fishery. As such, the true cause of fisheries exploitation is state mismanagement, what Marchuk fittingly calls “the tragedy of state mismanagement.” For example and in the case of cod fish, the Canadian government failed to accurately set and monitor their proposed total allowable catch (TAC). Fisherman fished above and beyond what was permitted until the stocks collapsed in 1992 and Canada announced a short-term moratorium on cod fish that has lasted through today. Contrast this with Iceland, a country that initiated the implementation the 200 mile zone and maintains strict TACs, and its clear that better management practices of one country contributed greatly to the perseverance of their cod stocks.
While many theories stand the test of time, they also receive good modifications and refinements. Charles Darwin contended that natural selection is a long process, yet Rosemary and Peter Grant proved otherwise in their study of Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Island. Hardin’s theory of a tragedy of the commons is still a good one, but it serves us better to incorporate Marchuk’s observations so as to properly identify culprits. It save us time and energy.