The Tragedy of the Commons

(News & Editorial/The Tragedy of the Commons)

What & who we are
(Excerpted from
“Humans are bipedal primates belonging to the species Homo sapiens (Latin: “wise man” or “knowing man”) in Hominidae, the great ape family. They are the only surviving members of the genus Homo. Humans have a highly developed brain, capable of abstract reasoning, language, introspection, and problem solving. This mental capability, combined with an erect body carriage that frees the arms for manipulating objects, has allowed humans to make far greater use of tools than any other species.

Like most higher primates, humans are social by nature. However, humans are uniquely adept at utilizing systems of communication for self-expression, the exchange of ideas, and organization.

Humans create complex social structures composed of many cooperating and competing groups, from families to nations.

Social interactions between humans have established an extremely wide variety of values, social norms, and rituals, which together form the basis of human society.
Humans have a marked appreciation for beauty and aesthetics which, combined with the human desire for self-expression, has led to cultural innovations such as art, literature and music.

Humans are noted for their desire to understand and influence their environment, seeking to explain and manipulate natural phenomena through science, philosophy, mythology and religion. This natural curiosity has led to the development of advanced tools and skills, which are passed down culturally; humans are the only species known to build fires, cook their food, clothe themselves, and use numerous other technologies…”

“In humans, behavioral innovations are usually passed down culturally from one generation to the next through social learning. For many, the existence of culture in humans is the key adaptation that sets us apart from animals.” However,

Humanity’s Archille’s Heel:
“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – Dr. Albert Bartlett, physicist.
All species expand as much as resources allow and predators, parasites, and physical conditions permit. When a species is introduced into a new habitat with abundant resources that accumulated before its arrival, the population expands rapidly until all the resources are used up.”  – David Price, Energy and Human Evolution 

.The tragedy of the commons
Pasted from
The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the 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. This dilemma was first described, in modern times, in an influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” written by ecologist Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.

Central to Hardin’s article is an example (See a similar cartoon below in this post. Mr Larry] of a hypothetical and simplified situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the quality of the common is damaged for all as a result, through overgrazing. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.

[The behavior of ‘Self interest vs. The Commons’ is a  common flaw in Man’s mental abilities and has been with us for thousands of years, if not since our dawn. You can see it today during the recent financial crisis where banks, whom during good times privatized their profits and in bad times spread their losses to the public.]

Thucydides (ca. 460 BC-ca. 395 BC) stated: “They devote a very small fraction of time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays.”

Aristotle (384-322 BC) similarly argued against common goods of the polis (city-state)  of Athens: “That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.”

Psychologist Dennis Fox used a number, what is now termed “Dunbar’s number”, to take a new look at the tragedy of the commons. In a 1985 paper titled “Psychology, Ideology, Utopia, & the Commons”, he stated “Edney also argued that long-term solutions will require, among a number of other approaches, breaking down commons into smaller segments. He reviewed experimental data showing that cooperative behavior is indeed more common in smaller groups. After estimating that “the upper limit for a simple, self-contained, sustaining, well-functioning commons  may be as low as 150 people”.
[If Fox is right and Dunbar’s number for cooperative behavior in a Commons is around 150, then our global political subdivisions of nation, state and county, municipality, are wholly wrong for long term human sustainability. When was the last time you found any personal democratic power in a group of about 150, or of any larger size. Casting our votes on election day really has little to do, ever, about The Commons which we all inhabit. Mr. Larry]

Cartoon illustrating The Tragedy of the Commons


The Tragedy of the Commons, becomes a problem of Exponential Growth

In America, growth is seen as American as the flag and apple pie. But there is trouble in paradise. The flag that flies for growth is a noose and the apple pie of expansion is laced with cyanide. But it’s not just America that has this unhealthy relationship with growth it’s the majority of the world and its economies. As our populations, economies, and resource use grow exponentially, so do our environmental problems and the potential for collapse of the earth’s ability to sustain human life. Growth as we know it cannot continue.

As the primary proponent of growth worldwide, business must adjust to the reality of the problems created by growth. Because our current systems of business rely upon continuous growth and development they can not survive in their current form. As Paul Hawken writes in, The Ecology of Commerce, “Just as internal contradictions brought down the Marxist and socialist economies, so do a different set of social and biological forces signal our own possible demise. Those forces can no longer be ignored or put aside”. The internal contradictions that Hawken is speaking of are creation of waste, unsustainable uses of resources, environmental degradation, a disparity of wealth, and a plethora of other unsustainable business practices.

The most important foundation of all of these problems is exponential growth in human population and resource use. Hawken states, “The problems to be faced are vast and complex, but come down to this: 5.5 billion people are breeding exponentially [the population is 7 billion now, the article pasted here was written a few years ago. Mr. Larry]. The process of fulfilling their wants and needs is stripping the earth of its biotic capacity to produce life; a climactic bust of consumption by a single species is overwhelming the skies, earth, waters, and fauna”. Hawken relates this to business practices by showing that business relies on and creates unsustainable growth. Hawken seeks to answer, as did the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Task Force on Environment, “What kind of jobs will be possible in a world of depleted resources, poisoned water and foul air, a world where ozone depletion and greenhouse warming make it difficult even to survive.”.

What exactly is exponential growth, and is exponential growth in population and resource use really unsustainable? Much of the public and by many of our policy makers do not understand exponential growth. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding has not keep exponential population growth and resource use from becoming a problem.
The possible origin of chess shows a striking example of exponential growth.
Legend has it that chess was invented by a mathematician who asked a king for what seemed to the king like a small price for the game. He asked that the king pay him in wheat. He asked the king to place 1 piece of wheat on the first square of the board, two on the second and that he continue to double the grains of wheat for all the squares on the board. The king agreed to pay the price, but it’s quite impossible that he held up his end of the bargain.
The amount of wheat needed is enormous. With 64 squares on a chessboard, the king needed 263 grains of wheat to pay the mathematician. This is roughly 400 times the 1990 worldwide harvest of wheat, and could be more wheat than has been harvested in the history of humanity! This is exponential growth. The king was probably thinking of linear growth, where the number of grains would grow by one for each square, when he made the deal. Linear growth would give 2048 grains of wheat in total. Enough grain for a few meals perhaps, but nothing compared to the amount of wheat harvested in human history.

Many things other than that cunning mathematician’s grains of wheat grow exponentially. Human population, resource use, and the waste that accompany them are growing exponentially. While many types of resource use are growing at over 5% per year, the human population is growing at about 1.6%. 1.6% does not seem too like an unacceptable rate of growth to many. In economic terms 1.6% growth is downright horrendous. The Japanese declare their economy is in recession if it grows less than 3% per year.
Although 1.6% does not seem like much to some of the kings and economists of the world, applied to human population it can yield huge numbers. While it took 2 million years for us to reach a population of 1 billion, we will add another billion to the earth’s population in just the next 11 years. If we calculate 1.6% growth out another 600 years, we find that there would be one person for each square yard of the dry land surface of earth, and in 1800 years the mass of humans would exceed the mass of the earth. Clearly human population growth will stop. But it’s not just our population that is growing, it’s also our use of natural resources.

Most types of resource use are growing faster than population. Although many associate growth in resource use with population growth, growth in resource use can also be independent of population growth. Resource use can grow even without population growth, although the reverse is hard to imagine. An example of what exponential growth means in resources can be seen with US coal reserves.
Coal is the US’s most abundant fossil fuel.
In 1991 the US Department of Energy reported that at current rate of use US coal reserves could last almost 500 years. But the caveat here is current rate of use. Between 1971 and 1991 the use of coal grew 2.86%. With this rate of growth US coal could last about 94 years if we could use it all, but more likely 72 years of coal would be.
[That means we could be out of coal by 2063 (1971+72 years), just 30 years after the decline from current Peak Oil has greatly reduced gasoline consuming private automobiles. Mr. Larry. See also the 4dtraveler Post: (News& Editorial/ Exponential Growth)

The lack of understanding of how long coal could last, comes from people’s lack of knowledge of exponential growth. In 1978, Time Magazine reported that there is “enough coal to meet the country’s energy needs for centuries, no matter how much energy consumption may grow. This is clearly untrue. If we look just at the amount of electrical energy the country uses and its historical growth over the last 40 years, we see that coal could meet that need for just 36 years. Remember, coal is our most abundant fossil fuel. This utter lack of understanding of the results of exponential growth isn’t limited to Time — it’s pervasive in our government, media, and general public.

Coal is just one example of the larger issues surrounding resource use. No one knows if we’ll be able to discover enough resources to maintain our level of growth, or if the social, human, and environmental costs of using these resources will be too high to use them if they are found. If one understands the way exponential growth works it becomes clear, as it is to most that study the issue, that population and resource use growth cannot continue. The manner in which these will stop is unknown. We seem to have two basic choices: we can decide how to stop the growth of population and resources use, or we can let nature do it for us.

Petroleum is another example of the larger issues…
In 1974, Dr Hubbert predicted that the peak of world oil would occur around 1995, so let’s see what’s happened. We have to go to the geology literature and ask the literature,
“What do you think is the total amount of oil we will ever find on this earth?”
The consensus figure in the literature is 2000 billion barrels. Now, that’s quite uncertain, plus or minus maybe 40 or 50%.
That would mean the peak is this year (2004). If I assume there is 50% more than the consensus figure, the peak moves back to 2019. If I assume there’s twice as much as the consensus figure, the peak moves back to 2030.

So no matter how you cut it, in your life expectancy, you are going to see the peak of world oil production. And you’ve got to ask yourself, what is life going to be like when we have a declining world production of petroleum, and we have a growing world population, and we have a growing world per capita demand for oil. Think about it.

[The problem of Mankind dealing with exponential growth leads back to the Tragedy of the Commons. In order to satisfy the needs and appetites of an exponentially growing population, exponential consumption is required, unless we each incrementally accept less and less.
We seek to satisfy our needs, and appetites individually, and on a family scale, meanwhile, considering any resultant problems as being the responsibility of The Commons.
Human beings will not search for, much less reach a consensus on how to equally share the responsibility of The Commons, in a multi-national environment; it’s our Human Nature to continue with new civilizations, with booms and busts.
Unfortunately, the petroleum, coal and commodity fed boom of the 20th Century will lead to a quite stellar bust in the 21st Century. Mr. Larry]

A few words of wisdom
•  “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – Dr. Albert Bartlett, physicist.
•  Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?” – Dr. Albert Bartlett, physicist.
•  Bartlett’s law will result in the exhaustion of petrochemical resources due to the exponential growth of the world population in line with the Malthusian Growth Model. – Dr. Albert Bartlett, physicist.
•  “The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to emotionally comprehend the exponential function.”- Edward Teller, American nuclear physicist, known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb.”
•  “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” – Kenneth Boulding, economist, system scientist, educator, author, poet.
•  Thomas Jefferson, in a 1787 letter to Peter Carr, made a profound observation about human nature that only now is being verified by neuroscience and behavioral genetics studies. “Man is”, Jefferson wrote, “a social animal and is endowed with a sense of right and wrong. If one would State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor … the former would decide it well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.”

Haiti and the Dominican Republic – comparing potential futures

[Photograph below: The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right) on the Caribbean island, Hispaniola. Policies that  led to deforestation practices in Haiti vs. the Dominican Republic, show that decision making, can and does make a difference in the condition of The Commons.

Centuries of man-made deforestation have reduced forest cover to about 2%  in Haiti, and 21% in the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican Republic constructed, dams to generate hydroelectric power. They launched a crash program to spare forest from being  use for fuel, by instead importing propane and liquefied natural gas. Haiti’s poverty forced its people to remain dependent on forest-derived charcoal from fuel, thereby accelerating the destruction of its last remaining forests.
Dominicans like the Haitians, have experienced a great deal of corruption and instability, but since 1970 the country has maintained the transition of power through peaceful elections. The continuity of the Dominican government made possible a set of economic reforms in 1990 that led to a decade of steady growth.
In the Dominican Republic, average life expectancy is nearly 74 years, in Haiti, it’s 61 years. [Photograph at right, farm community in the Dominican Republic.]

Haiti provides a dim image of an overpopulated, degraded world, where material things are scarce, where The Commons were ignored until it was too late.

What has come to Haiti in the 200 years, since her colonial days, pre 1804?
The Haitian environment has become a severely degraded ecosystem; her wildlife habitats have been destroyed or seriously damaged, with 25 to 30 watersheds largely degraded or altered. Because most of the trees have being cut, there is increased soil erosion and flood damage from storms, crop losses are greater.

 The countryside is already barely able to provide minimal living standards for the people. Those who lose their entire crop often end up living in a shanty in Port-au-Prince.
About three in four Haitians (73%) say there have been times in the past year when they or their families have gone hungry. Globally, only Africans in Chad (76%), Malawi (76%), and Niger (74%) are as likely to say they experienced food deprivation.
A majority of Haitians (57%) say there have been times in the past year when they did not have enough money to provide adequate shelter for themselves.
In Haiti, chronic political instability and corruption have combined with poverty, illiteracy, and racial discrimination to pose insurmountable barriers to modernization.
Meanwhile, Haitians are far more likely than Dominicans to say they’ve been assaulted in the past year. A full 30% of Haitians say they have been assaulted or mugged in the past 12 months, nearly three times the percentage of Dominicans who say the same (11%). In fact, among residents of more than 100 countries surveyed worldwide, only Burundians in central Africa (33%) are more likely than Haitians to say they’ve been attacked in the past year. [Photograph at right, farming community in Haiti.]

 Much of the rest on the planet could experience conditions somewhat similar to Haiti – 100 years from 2012. Considering that  petroleum and coal resources will  have been fully exploited and reduced to exhaustion within about 50 years (but 50 before that hypothetical 100 years has passed). Considering that other easily mined natural resources that we use in our civilization, will have  similarly been mostly extracted, it simply defies explanation where the energy will come from. If we do manage to overcome the energy challenge with a technological tour de force, starting immediately, where will the mines and minerals,  revitalized carbon depleted farm soil, restocked global fisheries, below ground  recharged water aquifers, and new surface fresh water resources come from?

All these problems are of course ‘in the future’ meaning… it’s going to ultimately be someone else’s responsibility…  [smile to yourself and think,  The Commons]. From your family’s view, the reality of peak oil is arriving now, along with increasing costs from food, medical care, college expenses… add your observations to the list. However, as a society, we’re seeing a decay in public infrastructure; diminishing economic returns; a long term continuing increase in social subsidies, income disparity, sub inflationary wage increases; no interest gained from our savings; political unrest is spreading at home and abroad.
This then, is the coming of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Mr. Larry


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