Tragedy of the Commons

With frequent news of the administration assault on public resources, stripping national monument and park protection, opening the Arctic up to drilling for oil, and opening public lands for the exploitation of natural resources, I question: To what end?  I have no answer to this question.  It may be that there is a true hatred of nature and the environment; there may be a strong belief in the rights of individuals, or individual states, over national interests; or maybe it really is all about the Benjamins baby.  Whatever the ultimate logic behind these moves, Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (published in 1968) is what keeps coming to mind when I consider the results of these actions.

Using the example of a “pasture open to all,” Hardin explains that each herdsman will keep as many cattle as possible on the pasture, which will work reasonably well for a period of time.  However, at some point, the “carrying capacity of the land” will be reached. The tragedy of the system, as explained by Hardin, is that “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited.”  The conclusion he reaches is that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”  Hardin even uses the U.S. National Park system as an example – as the population increases and more people visit the parks, “the values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded,” until at last the value is completely destroyed.

But what is more important for Americans, and humanity in general?  Should we save and preserve certain lands for the use of all, or even for the sake of saving the uniqueness of each?  Or should we exploit our resources to the limit for the benefit of humanity?  How do we determine which interest holds more importance?  Does the argument: ‘renewable resources can mostly replace the resources that will be obtained by the destruction of the land held in common’ have any place in this conversation?

Hardin’s solution is to legislate in order to protect that which is part of the commons and therefore valuable to all.  Both sides of the current argument – legislating to protect land for the common good and legislating to exploit the land for the common good – can use Hardin to bolster their defense.  What we may find, though, is that many people who cite Hardin’s tragedy of the commons fail to mention his overall resolution – that the commons and how they are used is not the problem; rather, it is overpopulation that is the problem.  His legislative goal is not to protect or exploit the land for the common good, but instead, he believes that humanity must relinquish the freedom to breed.

There may be some of you out there who read that and thought that the idea sounded pretty good.  Besides being pessimistic and cynical – Hardin assumes that humans can find no other solutions to the problem of the eventual destruction of the commons but it is also inherently against our nature.  If one truly does believe in the independence of individuals (or individual states), relinquishing the freedom to have children, and as many as we want, goes completely against that belief.  Furthermore, Hardin assumes, as most people probably do, that our planet has finite space and resources.  While that assumption is technically true, we as a species have been skilled at adapting to changing wants and needs since the dawn of humanity.

There are at least a handful of other solutions to the problem.  As I alluded to earlier, replacing finite resources (such as coal and oil) with renewable resources (such as the sun and the wind) is a viable first step in preserving our national and public lands.  There are other more drastic solutions which are still less drastic than limiting the right to have children, and the moral decisions surrounding that.

The website “Wait But Why” took on the question of overpopulation. They found that if the population of the world lived as densely as the population of Manila, Philippines, we could all fit inside of the borders of Tunisia.  This projection can be done many times over.  If we project something more realistic, they found that a population living as densely as the population of New Jersey would fit inside the borders of Russia.  Why is that important?  It’s not space to live that is the issue with overpopulation, but rather, as Hardin wrote, the “acquisition of energy…is the problem.”  In other words, we need a huge amount of land for resources – mostly food and energy production – but not so much land for living space.

It is also somewhat laughable (though sad) that we use so much land for food and energy production largely because we do not use it effectively. A National Geographic study found that yield gaps on productive farmland – places where current yields can be increased with improved farming methods – could be closed “using high-tech, precision farming systems, as well as approaches borrowed from organic farming.” The same study found “we can be more efficient about where we grow, what we grow, and how we grow.”

Taking that information into consideration, the world’s population can be moved to lands where farming is less productive – parts of Russia and Canada, the southwestern U.S., and Australia, for example – leaving the rest of the world available to be used for farming, pastureland, and the harvesting of natural resources.  This solution is far from simple, but not impossible.

For those who say this solution simply pushes the day of reckoning into the distant future, I won’t disagree.  But unlike in 1968, when Hardin wrote that “space is no escape,” humanity currently has robots exploring all parts of our solar system and people actively working to send humans to other worlds.  Hardin could not have known that a visionary such as Elon Musk believes there is a way to get humans to colonize Mars (starting by 2025!).  Musk believes that humanity will save itself by becoming “a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.”  Musk, a successful entrepreneur by almost any standard, has been doubted before.  But while space as an escape may not seem within reach, it is more of a reality in 2017 than anyone would have dreamed it to be a year before a human set foot on the moon, less than 50 years ago.

I don’t think we’re at the tipping point where drastic decisions must be made.  We don’t all need to live shoulder to shoulder or rush to exotic and extreme measures.  But the day of reckoning is coming.  Opening up public lands and waters to exploit resources at the expense of the environment and safety of species which depend upon those environments does not seem like an intelligent forward-looking action.  It looks especially foolish when we consider that the means to replace the environmentally destructive resources with more environmentally friendly ones are readily available to us, if only we acted more efficiently.  Ignoring more environmentally friendly fix now due to indifferent or intolerable views of nature and the environment, or in lieu of the almighty dollar, will only lead to more extreme and absurd solutions in the future.  If we even have a future.

Image credit: Library of Congress

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