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


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Proposed White Rock development a ‘nightmare’ for Elm Street neighbours

Density, traffic, loss of views among chief concerns of residents

Story of ‘A Mother’s Journey to Adoption’ told in book by first-time Surrey author

In the 1990s, Raj Arneja and husband Gurpreet adopted two children in India

Delta launches online engagement portal

“Let’s Talk Delta” offers variety of feedback methods including surveys, polls, forums and Q&A boards

Heritage rail to remain closed for both July and August

Fraser Valley Heritage Rail Society may open Cloverdale Station in September

Surrey council to consider a $150 FOI fee for attendance requests at city facilities

This is expected to come before council during tonight’s council meeting, on Monday July 13.

B.C. records 62 new COVID-19 cases, two deaths since Friday

Province has just over 200 active cases

Hotel rooms for B.C. homeless too hasty, NDP government told

Businesses forced out, but crime goes down, minister says

Wage subsidy will be extended until December amid post-COVID reopening: Trudeau

Trudeau said the extension will ‘give greater certainty and support to businesses’

B.C. government prepares for COVID-19 economic recovery efforts

New measures after July consultation, Carole James says

COVID-19 exposure on Vancouver flight

The Air Canada 8421 flight travelled from Kelowna to Vancouver on July 6

Double homicide investigation leads Vancouver police to Chilliwack

A VPD forensics unit was in Chilliwack Saturday collecting evidence connected to East Van murders

VIDEO: Former Abbotsford resident giving away $1,000

Langley native Alex Johnson creates elaborate treasure hunt to give away cash

Tree planters get help with COVID-19 protective measures

Ottawa funds extra transportation, sanitizing for crews

UPDATE: Abbotsford shooting victim was alleged ‘crime boss,’ according to court documents

Jazzy Sran, 43, was believed to have been smuggling cocaine across the border

Most Read

l -->