The Tragedy of the Commons

There has been a long standing problem called the tragedy of the commons (TotC). It’s usually described by talking about the use of a commonly held area–a commons–for grazing by cattle that are privately owned. When the number of cattle reaches the point where consumption exceeds the replenishment rate of the commons, the short term benefit to the private owners becomes a direct conflict with the long term well being of the commons. This is the classic problem of non-sustainability and is central to all environmental discussions.

Solutions are quite theoretical and have not been uniformly adopted by any nation,  let alone the conglomerate of all nations. The first author to write on the problem, Garret Hardin, indicated that the ultimate solution had to involve population control.

The aspect of the TotC that is most problematic is that the obvious consequence, total collapse of the system, is an inevitable result if no solution is introduced in a timely way.

Less widely noticed is the fact that the commons needs to to be examined for clues as to what is in danger of collapse–i.e., what constitutes the commons itself. In the case of climate change, the commons is no smaller than the entire Earth.

That tells us that those who will suffer in the case of collapse of the commons is not limited to humanity alone. Since  the entire system is what will collapse, what is in danger is much greater than just ourselves. What is in danger is the entirety of life on this planet.

Less you dismiss this out of hand, notice that Mars, which now seems dead, was apparently once very much alive. We thus far have not asked such questions of Venus, but we know it suffers from an extreme version of greenhouse effect–the very driver of our own climate’s change.

In order to deal with the threat to Earth, we must stop thinking the commons is only meant for us. Until we do that we are like the private owner who acts as if the commons was his alone. It  is our greed that  drives the TotC.

Our technology may succeed in postponing the collapse of the commons, but, so long as we think we are all that matters in that collapse, we only make the collapse more, not less, inevitable.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *