ENVIRO NOTES: Fixing ‘commons’ problem

In 1968, economist Garret Hardin caused a bit of a stir when he published an essay entitled The Tragedy of the Commons.

In 1968, economist Garret Hardin caused a bit of a stir when he published an essay entitled The Tragedy of the Commons.

His thesis was that, whenever a resource is generally accessible with no one claiming ownership, it is essential that all users take no more than their fair and equitable share. The alternative is eventual collapse or destruction of that resource.

He explained this with the example of common grazing land. Briefly, Hardin asserted that, if all graziers limit their individual herd sizes so that the total number of animals does not exceed the carrying capacity of the land, the system can continue indefinitely.

However, if even one grazier exceeds the maximum herd size, the land will be over-grazed, the available forage will diminish and so all of the animals and their owners will eventually suffer because of the selfish behaviour of one participant.

This model has widespread application, from individuals to communities, to corporations and to governments, and especially to the atmosphere and oceans. Sidewalks are for everyone to use as needed, but if thoughtless dog owners fail to clean up after their dogs have defecated – a not uncommon occurrence – all other users are inconvenienced and offended; a simple, local application of Hardin’s principle.

Air is a free and necessary resource available to us all. No one owns it. The fouling of that resource by one ill-tuned car or diesel-powered truck is insignificantly small, but the cumulative effect of a multitude of polluting vehicles is extremely damaging to everyone in the area, not just the drivers and passengers.

Similarly, water is a necessary and readily available resource, but pollution from one poorly managed industrial user or intentional discharge of wastes can render that water unfit for use by a whole community while the perpetrator ‘gets away with it’.

Destructive fishing in unregulated and unprotected oceans is being shown to generate short-term profits for a few but at the expense of significantly, and perhaps irretrievable, damaging fish stocks for everyone.

Controls on discharge of harmful emissions can be enacted, water management is regulated, but enforcement is not always applied. Punishment after the fact may prevent recurrence of an offence but does not repair the harm caused in the first place. It isn’t difficult to identify the root causes of the problem which stem from selfish, inconsiderate behaviour and greed.

Answers are much harder to develop. They must focus on inculcating a sense of communal responsibility in everyone, not just a few – a process which I believe starts very early in life. When will the coffee-drinker realize that casual discarding of an empty plastic cup damages the environment and generates clean-up costs? What message will persuade the struggling plant manager that illicit dumping of waste may save dollars but harm the community? What will it take to persuade operators of bottom-dragging trawlers to modify their destructive practice?

Laws and regulations to protect the community against the self-centred individual may help but only if they are enforced and that, costing money and staffing, points towards an abridgement of liberty and a police state and begs the question of who will do the policing.

There’s need to inculcate the concept of communal and corporate responsibility; acceptance of the ideas that “No man is an island” and that we are indeed our kinsfolk’s keepers. It’s the long-standing dilemma of balancing voluntary limits with enforcement of regulations. How this can be achieved, and by whom, are not easy questions to answer, but they do cry out for solutions which will be universally applied.

Dr. Roy Strang writes monthly on the environment for the Peace Arch News. rmstrang@shaw.ca


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