In this essay I will try to explain and analyse the effects of the tragedy of the commons when dealing with a global ecological crisis. Moreover it will be observed how the tragedy of the commons prevents us from solutions to solve ecological problems which affect the world as a whole. I will try to put a focus on the economical problem of the tragedy and the solutions which have been proposed yet.
The last decades have made it clear that our planet is on the verge of an epochal shift, different organisations dealing with ecological problems raised the alarm concerning the short- AND long-run future. It is well summarized by Al Gore:
“Unfortunately, in the intervening years, time has not stood still for the global environment. The pace of destruction has worsened and the urgent need for a response has grown more acute. (…)The relationship between human civilization and the Earth has been utterly transformed by a combination of factors, including the population explosion, the technological revolution.(…) the world’s leading scientists, have offered increasingly dire warnings.”2
Some wise, man already acknowledged this long before the status quo of ecological crisis in the modern world:
“(…) the white man does not understand our ways. (…)he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. (…), and when he has conquered it, he moves on. (…) His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.”3
Indeed the lifestyle of many societies is not sustainable, and has not been so even in ancient times. We just need to think of the fact that the roman empire 2000 years ago, during its thriving period was responsible for the destruction of the biggest forests in Europe.
“deforestation did not cause the Roman collapse, but that one could make a case as to being a part of it.” 4
If we think of how small we are compared to the enormous, massive number of individuals in society, we could feel that we are insignificant members of a huge machine, which is moved by its self-enforcing and self-imposed rules. We feel insignificant and weak.
(This kind of view is known in philosophy as Holism – the idea that systems, in this case ecological and demographical systems, can only be explained as a whole and not a collection of parts. Moreover Holism states that society determines individuals and not the other way round)
On the other hand we feel that it is not only our personal fault but also of the others who waste, abuse, exploit and prefer comfort to responsible and conscientious use of natural resources.(This will be explained better in the paragraph dedicated to the Tragedy of the commons)
Garret Hardin 1968
Al Gore 2006
Joseph A. Tainter, 2006
The Tragedy of the commons
The tragedy of the commons was first described in an article by the ecologist Garrett Hardin published in 1968 in the Science journal.
Hardin arrived to this dilemma starting his article from the concern of nuclear arms race between United states and the Soviet union during the years of cold war. His conclusion was that since our world is finite no technical solution is possible.
What he means by technical solution is best defined by Hardin himself:” A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality”.5
Hardin only started from this concern to define a no technical solution problem , a category of dilemmas which cannot be solved in a technical way. The reason is that we live in a finite world and even technological innovations cannot solve the problem of exponentially growing population, that is why we have to assume a finite world. The tragedy of the commons is one type of this dilemmas as will be explained.
Concretely the tragedy of the commons is the situation which emerges in social systems, which leads to over exploitation of common resources and therefore their destruction. As common resources affected by the problem we usually find things like non polluted water, air or environment in general; forests; but also clean streets, roads without traffic, fisheries resource, etcâ€¦
At the base of these resources is the fact that they all belong to the public good (or perfect public good for certain authors) category as defined by economic theory: “A public good (or service) may be consumed without reducing the amount available for others, and cannot be withheld from those who do not pay for it. Public goods include (…), national defense, parks, and other things for the use and benefit of all. No market exists for such goods(…).”6
As defined above these goods have basically two characteristics : Non- rivalry in consumption and non-excludability of potential users.
They are basically opposed to the private goods which have the opposite characteristics; for instance food is a typical private good: there is rivalry in consumption as if one person eats it, it cannot be eaten by someone else. Certainly they are also excludable a as is evidently clear. We can summarise the types of goods in the following table:
We won’t focus on Common goods and “Low – congestion goods” (also known as club goods) since they are more technical and not of the concern of this paper.
As stated in the introduction of this text, environment it a typical public good and people have an ambiguous feeling concerning protection of the environment as conscious behaviour. Regarding this last point we can observe a certain psychological process occurring in an agent’sA mind and logic.
Agents is the economic definition of individual. They are “purposeful agents who interact in space and time and whose micro-level interactions create emergent patterns. (â€¦) ” 8
The agent has two distinct feelings. The first one is a sense of injustice which can be summarized in the sentence “Why should I care while anyone does not, and moreover enjoys the benefits of taking advantage of nature”. The second reasoning going on in an agent’s mind is more rational. Furthermore if the person thinks of his utilityB he will end up noticing that if he chooses to protect the environment and act consciously he will not get the benefit (utility) of his actions (for instance a less polluted air) because anyway other agents will abuse the environment increasing their own utility.
B. “In economics, the level satisfaction the person derives from a good or service. Utility is inherently subjective and thus difficult to measure(…). Historically, it has been thought that one can quantify the utility of each unit, but some economists disagree with this.” 9
Hardin makes the example of a pasture in the land to which everybody has access to. Given a group of many herdsmen anyone willing to increase his own utility and therefore revenues, it appears clear that one is better off having many animals than a few.
If we imagine a rational herdsman taking decision whether to add an additional animal to his herd, he has two effects from the decision, one is a positive and the other a negative in regard to his utility. The positive is the fact that he will have all the proceeds from an additional animal. We can therefore imagine an incensement of utility equal to +1. The negative one is that the pasture is exploited more and more and will yield less. But since the herdsman is not the only owner but there are many, this negative effect will be shared with the others, it is therefore only a fraction of -1. 10
Since they are rational it is reasonable to add an additional animal but as all do so, the pasture gets ruined. Indeed this is due to the fact that the revenue is individualistic, the loss on the other hand is shared by all. Additionally each one is only applying his individual rationality which is different from collective one.
” Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush”10
At this point one could argue that after some years the herdsmen understand that abusing the pasture by over exploiting it leads to a worse outcome for all since it gets infertile and no one can profit from it anymore.
But even if they do understand the mechanism of the dilemma it is very difficult to enforce means of controlling the others: pastures are huge and there are many animals, so how to distinguish one from another? If it would be conceivable to create such a control in the herdsmen case it would be even worse and unthinkable for cases like pollution.
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How to control every person who is dirtying the streets? Agreement to prevent polluting action is almost impossible, violators are difficult to catch because the agents are many and the damage produced by each action is relatively small and hidden. What is even worse is that violations are hard to identify not only because the group is big, but also fluid (lots of agents are in the place for a very short period of time)
New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2008
Farlex Financial Dictionary. 2012 Farlex, Inc.
As we have seen the tragedy of the common is the biggest deal preventing us to deal with a global ecological crisis. We know that the problem of each person will be asking what would change if they act in a conscious way, but the conclusion will only be that the environment gets ruined anyway and the individual will be worse off than when acting selfish. This is not only true for single people but also for entire nations.
The latter concept is also known in international law as Transboundary damage: ” Transboundary damage can arise from a wide range of activities which are carried out in one country but in¬‚ict adverse effects in the territory of another. Traditionally, however, transboundary damage as a term of art normally refers to border-crossing damage via land, water, or air in dyadic State relations”11, 12, 13
It is the idea that industrial or economic activity conducted by one country for its own sake creates damage for others.
The technical definition is “That large-scale industrial, agricultural, and technical activities conducted in the territory of one country can cause detrimental effects in the territory of another country or to areas of the global commons”.11,12,13
The problem is still that:” Everyone is waiting for everyone else to act first, the result being that no one acts at all.”14, 15
Economic theory deals with this kind of problem as a market failure. As we said in the previous paragraph, public goods lead to market failures because a certain part of the cost of the action is not paid by the agent. For instance the cost of a polluted environment is not paid by the polluting industries. These agents are known in economic theory as free riders: “Party that enjoys a benefit accruing from a collective effort, but contributes little or nothing to the effort.”16
General solution to the problem is to tax the agent who is creating the social cost so that he has to pay the price for the damage he is creating. This kind of taxation is known as Pigouvian tax, from the name of his inventor: Arthur Cecil Pigou
What is different in our case is that we deal with a global ecological crisis so there is no global financial institution which could enforce taxation on national states.
A particular solution which is interesting in our case is the one of emission trading. This refers to a system of tradable permit which can be bought on a market. Each permit gives the right to pollute a certain quantity, the outcome of the trading is unexpected: An industry which’s cost of reducing pollution is high might buy the permits, on the other hand an industry with low reduction cost for emission might reduce its emissions and sells its permits to others.
The more efficient in reducing emissions are rewarded. This system is not only a theoretical one but was actually applied for the Kyoto protocol of 1997 about CO2 emissions.
Still as stated above and previous to our times by Garret Hardin these are mostly technical solutions and will only delay the moment in which resources will not suffice – especially with a growing population. Therefore a different approach is necessary, a shift in the way we act but fundamentally in what we believe to be the goal of our lives and therefore societies.
Certainly one answer to the problem would be the one of the Ecologist view of the world. Green parties have been asking for reduction of emission and preservation of environment since the late sixties.
The basic foundation of their claims is that human society as a whole should reduce its consumption and live a life which is sustainable.” (…) the more fundamental response is to try to reduce or avoid those human activities that are seen as endangering sustainable development.”17
We should demand ourselves if we really need all the material good provided by society and if this really makes us happier. Market economy states that the price is the value a consumer gives to a certain good. If he is willing to pay one hundred dollars for a good or service this means he values it exactly one hundred dollars of utility.
But the question is does our happiness really depend on this? Because in the end, at the deepest layer it is just about it – Happiness. It has been questioned if the relation with nature is only one sided or if it might be that our life depends from what nature gives to us : “We’ve heard copious accounts of our impact-as humans, as a society-on the natural world. But this is not a one-sided relationship. Lost in these dire and scolding accounts has been the impact on us and our well-being.”18
This is Lambin’s view in his book “ecology of happiness”. Further he arrives to the conclusion that “You sense it while walking on a sandy beach, or in a wild, woody forest, or when you catch sight of wildlife, or even while gardening in your backyard. Could it be that the natural environment is an essential part of our happiness?”18
The answer is a positive one, we were born as natural beings but the development of modern society pushed us extremely far away from our original situation.
We should really think if the direction our society is going will bring to a better life for all?
Hanqin, Xue 2003
Crawford, James 2003
Bell, John 2003
G. Smith 2002
J. Connelly 2002
The Business dictionary
Eric Lambin 2012
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