Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Tragedy of the Commons

I'm thinking today about the tragedy of the commons, a term coined in 1833 by a Victorian economist, William Forster Lloyd, in reference to unregulated grazing on common lands, and further developed in a 1968 paper by American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin. The abstract for Hardin's paper (available here) goes like this: "The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality." Hear blinking hear. (He is also known for Hardin's First Law of Human Ecology: "We can never do merely one thing. Any intrusion into nature has numerous effects, many of which are unpredictable." Amen.)

I'm thinking about this because on April 16 of this year (or maybe May 11), some 4 million people in the West Cape (think Capetown), South Africa—75 percent of the local population—will no longer receive piped-in water, but instead will have to queue up each day to receive water (25 liters guaranteed—about one-twelfth of what the average American uses) from any of 200 collection points around the area. You can bet that those people are already praying, hard, that the rainy season, which typically begins in May and runs to September, will be a healthy one. But there are no guarantees, especially after three years, so far, of protracted drought. It's a complicated story, which I invite you to read about in the Guardian or National Geographic.

This is NOT the tragedy of the commons:
this is me-me-me ideology
(I found it on a right-wing Austrian website)
Part of the problem has been that for decades water (up to 6,000 liters a month per person) in Capetown was free, so there was no real incentive to use less. Even once the drought hit and the reservoirs started shrinking. That is the tragedy of the commons. As Wikipedia puts it, it is "an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action." Call it hubris, short-sightedness, greed. Call it human nature. Sadly. And yes, often tragically.

I googled for other examples of the tragedy of the commons, and here's what I came up with (from Dummies.com): 

Grand Banks Fisheries

For centuries, these fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland were home to an "endless" supply of cod fish. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, advances in fishing technology allowed huge catches. This in turn caused fish populations to drop, forcing fishermen each season to sail ever farther offshore to maintain their large catch sizes. By the 1990s, the Grand Banks fishing industry had collapsed. And by then, it was too late for regulation and management. Today, some scientists doubt the ecosystem will ever recover.

Bluefin Tuna

The bluefin tuna populations in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean today face a similar fate as that of the Grand Banks cod (and of bluefin tuna in the Black and Caspian seas, which have already been fished to extinction). In the 1960s, fishermen realized the tuna populations were in danger, and an International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) was formed in an effort to manage fish harvesting more sustainably. However, not every nation is a member of the ICCAT or follows the convention’s guidelines; many nations continue to seek profit from large bluefin tuna catches every year without regard for conservation.

Ocean Gyres

"The ocean is an excellent example of a shared resource that can easily be abused and degraded because it’s shared by many different nations. No single authority has the power to pass laws that protect the entire ocean. Instead, each nation manages and protects the ocean resources along its coastlines, leaving the shared common space beyond any particular jurisdiction vulnerable to pollution.
  "Throughout the world’s oceans, garbage has begun to accumulate in the center of circular currents, or gyres. . . . Destruction of ocean ecosystems because of garbage, especially plastic pollutants, is likely to affect every person on the planet as these pollutants cycle through the food chain."

Earth's Atmosphere

"Earth’s atmosphere is another resource that everyone on the planet uses and abuses. Air pollution and greenhouse gases from various industries and transportation increasingly damage this valuable, shared resource.
  "As an example of a tragedy of the commons, the atmosphere offers some hope for a solution: More than once, international agreements have recognized the importance of taking care of the atmosphere. One example is the [1992] Kyoto Protocol, which attempted to bring nations together in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing global climate warming. [And yeah, no, the U.S. never ratified.]

Population Growth

Estimates of population evolution on
different continents between 1950 and 2050
according to the United Nations.
The vertical axis is logarithmic and is
in millions of people.
"Some scientists consider the exponential growth of the human population to be an example of a tragedy of the commons. In this case, the common resource is the planet Earth and all its shared resources. The world’s population has reached a whopping 7 billion individuals.
  "Examining population growth as a tragedy of the commons illustrates that the depletion of common resources isn’t always the result of greed. Just by existing, each person uses water, air, land, and food resources [these qualify as the 'global commons']; splitting those resources among 7 billion people (and counting) tends to stretch them pretty thin."

The rest of the Dummies top ten are
  • the Gulf of Mexico dead zone
  • traffic congestion
  • passenger pigeons
  • groundwater in Los Angeles
  • unregulated logging
Here's that link again, if you'd like to read about them.

As I think about these various problems, I once again condemn our current administration—so-called "government"—for slashing regulations and commitments that protect all of us. We 7 billion earthlings—or even we 325 million Americans—aren't going to be able to make for a healthy planet/country individually: it requires collective intelligence, moral deliberation, action, oversight, and ever ongoing care. Instead, currently, we seem to have a free-for-all based mainly on greed and power. I can't stand it . . .

In any case, I wish all best to Capetown as May 11 approaches. And I wish for a drenching good rainy season. I wish that, metaphorically, for all of us on this earth. But I also, to the depths of my heart, wish for good leadership.

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