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Tragedy of the commons Essay

The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. Hardin’s Commons Theory is cited to support the notion of sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection and has had an effect on current issues, including debate over global warming. Central to Hardin’s article is an example of a hypothetical situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put succeeding cows he acquires onto the land, even if the quality of the common is temporarily or permanently damaged, through over grazing. The herder receives all benefits from an additional cow while damage to the common is shared by entire group. If all herders make this rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or destroyed to the detriment of all.

The tragedy of the commons is an economics theory, according to which individuals, acting independently according to one’s self-interest, behave contrary to whole group’s long-term best interests by depleting a common resource. ‘Commons’ can include the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, national parks, office refrigerator and any other shared resource. Tragedy of the commons has relevance in analyzing behaviour in fields of economics, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, game theory, politics, taxation and sociology. Some see ‘tragedy’ as an example of emergent behaviour. Hardin was interested in the problem of human population growth. In his essay, he focused on use of larger resources like Earth’s atmosphere and oceans and pointing out ‘negative commons’ of pollution. The ‘tragedy’ is not in the word’s conventional sense nor a condemnation of processes that lead to it. Free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource reduces the resource through over-exploitation. This occurs because benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of resource to the point in which they become reliant on it while costs of exploitation are borne by all those to whom resource is available.

This causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes problem to snowball until resource collapses. Rate at which depletion of resource is realized depends on three factors: number of users wanting to consume the common in question, consumptiveness of their uses and relative robustness of the commons. Tragedy of the commons can be considered in relation to environmental issues like sustainability. Commons dilemma stands as a model for a great variety of resource problems today, like water, forests, fish and non-renewable energy sources. Situations exemplifying ‘tragedy of the commons’ include overfishing and destruction of Grand Banks, destruction of salmon runs on rivers that have been dammed, limited water available in arid regions. Other situations exemplifying the ‘tragedy of the commons’ include congestion caused by driving cars. There are many negative externalities of driving: pollution, carbon emissions and traffic accidents. Articulating solutions to the tragedy of the commons is one of the problems of political philosophy. In absence of enlightened self-interest, some form of federation is needed to solve collective action problem. Governmental regulations can limit amount of a common good that is available for use by any individual. Permit systems for extractive economic activities including mining, fishing, hunting, livestock raising and timber extraction are examples of this approach.

Limits to pollution are examples of governmental intervention on behalf of the commons. Resource users themselves can co-operate to conserve the resource for mutual benefit. Another solution for some resources is to convert common good into private property, giving the new owner an incentive to enforce its sustainability. Libertarians cite the tragedy of the commons as an example of what happens when property rights to homestead resources are prohibited by a government. The solution to the tragedy of the commons is to allow individuals to take over property rights of a resource (privatizing it) Hardin proposed that solution to the problem of overpopulation must be based on ‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon’ and result in ‘relinquishing freedom to breed’. The commons dilemma is a specific class of social dilemma in which people’s short-term selfish interests are at odds with long-term group interests and the common good. The tragedy of the commons appears in problems of pollution. This 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 fumes into air and distracting advertising signs into line of sight. Rational man finds that his share of the cost of wastes he discharges into the commons is less than cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them.

We are locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest’, so long as we behave as independent, rational, free-enterprisers. Tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property. But the air and waters surrounding us cannot be fenced and so tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for 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. Our concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting positive resources of the earth, favours pollution. Owner of a factory on the bank of a stream—whose property extends to middle of stream, has difficulty seeing why it is not his right to muddy the waters flowing past his door. The law requires elaborate stitching and fitting to adapt it to newly perceived aspect of the commons. Pollution problem is a consequence of population. As population became denser, natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded, calling for re-definition of property rights. Analysis of the pollution problem as a function of population density uncovers a not recognized principle of morality: the morality of an act is a function of the state of system at the time it is performed.

Using commons as a cesspool does not harm general public under frontier conditions as there is no public, the same behaviour in a metropolis is unbearable. As human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned. Most important aspect of necessity that we must recognize is necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from misery of over-population. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. To avoid hard decisions, we are tempted to propagandise for conscience parenthood. The only way we can preserve and nurture precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed. Freedom is the recognition of necessity and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons. Fundamental conditions must exist before a tragedy can emerge. First condition involves nature of the resource itself. One must distinguish between a public good and a commons or a common-pool resource (CPR). Knowing the conditions that lead to a tragedy does not ensure that one can avoid it. The nature of a resource is fixed.

While one can limit withdrawal of resource units to a sustainable rate for renewable and a repairable rate for those that physically deteriorate, a subtractable resource cannot ne made non-subtractable. Managing access involves complex task of excluding others from using the resource. Thus, averting a tragedy involves restraining consumption and access. Such restraint poses a significant but not intractable, behavioural challenge. The focus of research shifted from exploring conditions under which a tragedy is likely to occur to understanding the conditions under which resilient resource management emerges. All users benefit from maintenance of a public resource. To solve environmental problems, we have to find ways to encourage formation of self-organized CPR institutions.

One approach to creating CPR institutions is called ‘adaptive muddling’. This is a form of muddling that emphasizes not small steps but small experiments. It offers a way of exploring possible solutions thus avoiding sluggishness which plagues one-solution-at-a-time approaches. People are empowered to apply local knowledge to a situation. Different people applying different knowledge to same situation creates a variety of potential solutions. Enhanced and diverse creativity is needed. Adaptive muddling contains a stability component that not only reduces costs of failure for individuals but also makes improbable any unchecked change and widespread implementation of untested solutions. However one crafts workable CPR management institutions, urgency of the task is clear. For, while tragedy of the commons is not an inevitable outcome, it is a conceivable risk whenever resources are being consumed.

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