Monday, 3 October 2011

What's the Real Tragedy?

All of us can think back to bits of information or ideas that stick with us for the rest of our lives. One that  stays with me is an ecological concept called  "The Tragedy of the Commons".  At its heart is the environmental destruction caused by over exploitation of a resource, but it also speaks to human nature, economics, and ideology.

Aristotle captured the problem three hundred years BC: "For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual." An ecologist called Garret Hardin wrote an  influential essay in Science Magazine in the late 1960's called "The Tragedy of the Commons" which popularized the idea. Hardin used a very concrete example: livestock herders all able to use a community pasture or commons, all wanting their sheep or cattle to eat as much of the common pasture as possible regardless of the impact this has on anyone else, or the damage to the pasture caused by overgrazing.  Both Aristotle and Hardin argue that when something is "commonly" or publicly owned,  everyone will want to exploit it, but no one will take responsibility for how it's used. Most ecologists, economists and politicians use the dilemma to argue for the importance of private property, that if someone owns  the pasture he or she would make sure it wasn't overgrazed.

This isn't the best solution for everyone, particularly left-leaning folk who would argue that reasonable, ethical  people can share a resource fairly and protect it, and if they won't then it's up to the government to bring in regulations to ensure the pasture isn't over exploited.

Some argue that medicare suffers from this problem, that because going to the doctor in Canada doesn't "cost" anything,  many overuse the system adding unnecessary costs to other taxpayers.  I'm not sure about that, but there's no question that the fishery is the best example of the difficulty of managing a public resource used by private interests who's livelihoods are linked to getting whatever they can of a limited amount of fish, and do it before someone else does.

There has been experimentation with ITQ's, or boat quotas. Each fisherman (sorry fisher is still a woodland creature for me) can count on catching a certain amount of fish, and do it when it suits him or her, rather than rushing out and glutting the market. Some worry whatever the rules are, ITQ's will eventually be controlled by monied interests like large processors, that that's the importance of maintaining the fishery as a "public" resource. 

Others talk about something I think makes more sense, a sort of mid-way solution between private and public ownership: community quotas. Give fishing communities the ability to control how local stocks are exploited.  There's no "private" ownership, but a clear interest in maintaining a fish stock for future generations. Right now fishermen see the regulators as pampered civil servants in Moncton or Ottawa and feel no compelling interest to pay attention to the rules, just a competitive drive to get their share of the stock. Answering to neighbours or community leaders is much more difficult.

In his essay Garrett Hardin tried to develop an understanding of how we use resources that we fill up rather than take from, like the air and water.

"In a reverse way, the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in--sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air, and distracting and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. The calculations of utility are much the same as before. The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of "fouling our own nest," so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers.

The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it. But the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated. We have not progressed as far with the solution of this problem as we have with the first. Indeed, our particular concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth, favors pollution."

Don't forget that Hardin wrote this thirty-three years ago and that Aristotle understood the forces at play two thousand years ago. Our human nature hasn't changed much, we just have better tools and toys  to get the job done.

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