Creative Commons License

Tragedy of the Commons Still Has Meaning

Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 12:29 PM EDT

“The Tragedy of the Commons” is an influential article written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. It’s one of those pivotal articles at the dawn of the environmental and conservation movements, which describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen. challenged the philosophical assumption of Adam Smith that decisions reached individually will be the best decisions for an entire society and advocated “social arrangements” that produce responsibility. These arrangements might include some form of “mutually agreed upon coercion”, although perhaps “coercion and incentives” more accurately describes his intentions.

Today, the strongest criticisms of the environmentalist and conservationist political stances, advocating regulatory measures and incentives for directing human industry, are still being voiced by the intellectual descendants of Adam Smith. These critics – Libertarians – continue to take the position that anything benefiting individuals in a competitive economy is good, and any hindrance of those liberties is bad, even when scientists indicate that the opposite is the case.

As an example, one poignant example of this tragedy today is the unsustainable consumption levels of harvests from the oceans’ fisheries. The Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) estimates 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. And previous FAO reports from the late 1990s indicated that sixty percent of the world’s important fish stocks are “in urgent need of management.” Similarly, FAO’s 2008 State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture report describes, among other things, that 80% of the world’s oceans are fully exploited or overexploited (Part 1, p34). The status of Mediterranean fisheries is in a similar plight, with Bluefin Tuna stocks dropping by almost half over 8 years.

Other smaller over-exploitations as well. It is no secret that deforesting is still a drastic problem, particular in the world’s rain forests. And, locally to the Mediterranean, people hunt, trap, and eat tens of millions of bird migrants each year in Cyprus, Malta, and elsewhere, contributing to massive declines in a wide range of species who breed in Europe.

The numbers are staggering. Some declines of biodiversity will directly (and adversely) effect food availability for mankind’s bursting multitudes, while others will effect us more indirectly – and all will reduce the diversity of life on earth and it’s ecological equilibria. And humanity bears the weight of the responsibility.

Relatedly, Hardin also emphasized how the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. There are many pollutants that cause problems in the 21st century environment, but regulation has reigned in many different forms of pollution with varying degrees of success. One remaining problem is that of the floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere.

The other that has to-date been unaddressed remains CO2. Like it or not, there are difficulties in reducing carbon emissions. And the tragedy here is that no one is willing to take significant leadership on this problem least of all the United States of America.

And that is the ongoing and over-arching problem – no one is willing to take responsibility, and become leaders, on these excessive uses of resources and excessive release of wastes. These problems will not go away, and they remain tragedies of the commons.

Tagged: biodiversity