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Drawn Up: The Tragedy of the Commons

by Owen MulhernOct 6th 20215 mins
Drawn Up: The Tragedy of the Commons

As the human population grows, the Earth and its resources remain constant. As each of us focuses more naturally on personal betterment and gain, common resources become overloaded and dwindle – this is the Tragedy of the Commons. 

Thomas Malthus famously theorised that while population grew exponentially (“geometrically”), food supply would only ever grow linearly (“arithmetically”), indicating that humans would indubitably end up in famine and poverty. Was he subscribing to a kind of ‘doomism’? Or was he right in predicting the depletion of our resources to the point of no return?

world population growth ourworldindata

A graph depicting world population and world population growth between 1750-2100.

With an ever-growing world population—set to reach 11.2 billion by 2100—many are increasingly worried about the scarcity and fierce competition for resources that future generations will inevitably face. But the reality is that this concern exists now, and it existed almost two centuries ago. The usurpation of human self-interest over moral and rational behaviour has never been an uncommon phenomenon. Economists explore this through a problem called the “tragedy of the commons”.

The term was first mentioned in 1832, by a political economist called William Forster Lloyd, who lamented the devastation of shared pastures in England. Upon seeing the overgrazing of cattle, he asked, “Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining enclosures?”

More than a century later, ecologist Garrett Hardin conjured this concept back into the fore and named it the tragedy of the commons. In his essay, he perpetuated Neo-Malthusian ideals about shared resources and the difficulty of maximising good for everyone. But what exactly does the tragedy of the commons refer to? 

The tragedy of the commons describes the conflict between short-term self interest and long-term common good. It proposes that self-interested decisions made by the rational individual are almost guaranteed to cause detriment to the well-being of the wider community. These decisions allow the individual to benefit themselves whilst simultaneously distributing the adverse effects on the larger population. Often this leads to social and environmental problems. 

the tragedy of the commons hardin

Source: Ric Stephens, University of Oregon College of Design, School of Planning, Public Policy, and Management.

Take driving your car for example: driving is necessary for some, while others prefer it to public transport. But as more people acribe to the comfort of their car, air pollution worsens, greenhouse gases are emitted, and a vicious cycle begin as roads become congested. The burden is shouldered by all. 

Hardin’s take is that over-breeding and unnecessary childbirth are the root cause of the tragedy of the commons. He asserts that, if families only had themselves to depend on, and not the welfare state, over-breeding would not pose a threat to food availability. Over-breeding would negate itself through a negative feedback loop, as children who could not be provided for would simply not be able to survive. Hardin therefore blames the welfare state for providing support to those children, which has resulted in fiercer competition for resources.

One example of the tragedy of the commons today is the overuse of a powerful resource – antibiotics. The increasing accessibility and (deceptive) efficiency of antibiotics has resulted in over 30% of them being deemed overprescribed and unnecessary, because the more they are used, the likelier antibiotic resistance will arise. Antibiotic consumption is particularly prevalent in livestock food, predicted to reach over 33,000 tons per year in China alone by 2030. Applying such selective pressure on short generation-time organisms like bacteria massively accelerates their adaptation and the emergence of resistant variants. Unfortunately, our antibiotic discovery rate cannot keep up with bacterial genetic variation, meaning that we will eventually lose this arms race if something does not change.

antibiotic discovery timeline

Timeline of antibiotic production. Source: Less of the Same: Rebooting the antibiotic pipeline, Harvard blog.

The UK government predicts that antimicrobial-resistant infections will kill 10 million people across the world by 2050, or as many as air pollution kills each year today.

The problem of the tragedy of the commons is deeply exacerbated by the core value of capitalism, namely the freedom to profit. With little-to-no government regulation of who-gets-what, also termed a laissez-faire approach, the free market is dominated by self-interest. When an individual is empowered by their community’s political system to pursue their desires freely, it is often the less fortunate that are on the receiving end of the disastrous consequences. While wealthy oil industry conglomerates reap the rewards of capitalism and profit from producing cheap energy, the poorly situated housing neighbourhoods located near the oil plants suffer from leukaemia, birth defects, respiratory diseases and poor air quality.

Some might notice that the tragedy of the commons carries eerie similarities to philosopher and social theorist Thomas Hobbes’ “state of war”, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all”. Hobbes, who viewed humans’ innate human nature as selfish, claimed that in order to prevent our self-interest from spiralling out of control, we needed an absolute sovereign. By this, we can infer that the only mechanism which will allow us to solve the tragedy of the commons is through direct and absolute control from the government. It emphasises the necessity of policies and social governance to maintain stability within a society.

Unsurprisingly, Hardin’s tragedy of the commons and the solution he proposed faced much criticism from other economists. Elinor Ostrom, in particular, argued that a bottom-up approach to controlling common pool resources would be much more effective in the long term. She emphasised that the individual and their community were capable of managing their collective resources, and that the government would need to work with them in order for intervention to be efficacious. Her contradictive response to Hardin’s essay would later win her the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2009.

Nonetheless, it seems Hardin’s view is prevailing – communities are rapidly losing resources and land to large corporations, thus negating Ostrom’s solution. There is an environmental awareness movement in the corporate world today in the form of ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting and investing, but will it be enough? The Paris Agreement was a manifestation of Hardin’s call for governmental intervention, and despite the progress it has led to, we are still far from a 1.5°C or even 2°C  path (currently on track for ~2.4°C by 2100 according to the latest IPCC report). We at Earth.Org are partial to more decisive policy, ideally legislated by a global, UN-like entity responsible for orchestrating the fight against climate change and environmental destruction. 

This article was written by Alexandria Pu. 

You might also like: How Desertification Has Affected These 9 Countries Since 1984


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