Copyright 2003-2013 The Garrett Hardin Society. This material may be freely used and distributed only for non-commercial purposes, with credit given. Trademarks and copyrighted items remain the property of the owner. It is what is the tragedy of commons essay about to call for interdisciplinary syntheses, but will anyone respond?
My first attempt at interdisciplinary analysis led to an essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons. Since it first appeared in Science 25 years ago, it has been included in anthologies on ecology, environmentalism, health care, economics, population studies, law, political science, philosophy, ethics, geography, psychology, and sociology. It became required reading for a generation of students and teachers seeking to meld multiple disciplines in order to come up with better ways to live in balance with the environment. I did not start out intending to forge an interdisciplinary link, but rather to present a retiring president’s address to the Pacific division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But even after six revisions, each quite different from the one before, my summary of an ecologist’s view of the human overpopulation problem would not crystallize.
Repeatedly, I found fault with my own conclusions. With Adam Smith’s work as a model, I had assumed that the sum of separate ego-serving decisions would be the best possible one for the population as a whole. But presently I discovered that I agreed much more with William Forster Lloyd’s conclusions, as given in his Oxford lectures of 1833. Citing what happened to pasturelands left open to many herds of cattle, Lloyd pointed out that, with a resource available to all, the greediest herdsmen would gain–for a while. But mutual ruin was just around the corner. Smithian individuals, would be trapped by their own competitive impulses.
So must it also be, I realized, with growing human populations when there is a limit to available resources. The direct psychic gains of parenthood are offset by economic losses channeled through the whole population. I rewrote the essay for what I thought would be the last time. But in a final reading to my family and friends at a stopover on our way to the meeting in Utah, I was encouraged to modify it again. I scribbled in the changes, most notably the suggestion that the way to avoid disaster in our global world is through a frank policy of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon. Under conditions of scarcity, ego-centered impulses naturally impose costs on the group, and hence on all its members. A crude example makes the point: I might like to rob banks, but I am unwilling to allow other citizens to do so.
So most of us, acting together, pass laws that infringe on the individual’s freedom to rob banks. For an example closer to home, think of what is happening to the freedom to make withdrawals from the oceanic bank of fishes. In 1625, the Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius said, “The extent of the ocean is in fact so great that it suffices for any possible use on the part of all peoples for drawing water, for fishing, for sailing. Now the once unlimited resources of marine fishes have become scarce and nations are coming to limit the freedom of their fishers in the commons. From here onward, complete freedom leads to tragedy. And still the shibboleth, “the freedom of the seas,” interferes with rational judgment. My address was a success, and the essay was printed 6 months later, trimmed by half and, presumably, more appealing in its brevity to a wider audience.
My address was a success – all I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil, what has been called the “tragedy of the commons” is that communually owned assets often deteriorate because no one in particular owns them and so it is in the interest of no one in particular to perserve and protect the assets. Just as a starving person lives off their own tissues, the afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. It was the first secular tragedy written since Roman times, waste land was also accessible to local inhabitants. Comparing one good with another is, charles Galton Darwin made this point when he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather’s great book. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut; is it better for a species to be small and hideable, where the author earnestly pursued his interests in scientific farming and animal husbandry.
The 600 reprints were exhausted in a matter of weeks. Its message is, I think, still true today. Individualism is cherished because it produces freedom, but the gift is conditional: The more the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment, the more freedoms must be given up. As cities grow, the freedom to park is restricted by the number of parking meters or fee-charging garages. On the global scale, nations are abandoning not only the freedom of the seas, but the freedom of the atmosphere, which acts as a common sink for aerial garbage. Yet to come are many other restrictions as the world’s population continues to grow. The reality that underlies all the necessary curtailments is always the same–population growth.
Yet the slightest attempt to limit this freedom is promptly denounced with cries of Elitism! We are slow to mend our ways because ethicists and philosophers of the past generally did not see that numbers matter. In the language of 20th-century commentators, traditional thinking was magnificently verbal and deplorably nonnumerate. One of today’s cardinal tasks is to marry the philosopher’s literate ethics with the scientist’s commitment to numerate analysis. Words are important, but they often require a numerate cast.
What I have realized from reading numerous criticisms of the theory of the commons is that both Lloyd and I were analyzing a subset of commons–those where “help yourself” or “feel free” attitudes prevail. This was the message European pioneers in North America thought they had been given by the land they chose to perceive as unpeopled. Even today, laws encouraging private access to public lands for mining, pasturing, and forestry perpetuate subsidies that support malfunctioning commons. Numeracy demands that we take account of the exponential growth of living systems, while acknowledging that resources, when thoroughly understood, will prove to be definable by numbers that are relatively constant. To judge from the critical literature, the weightiest mistake in my synthesizing paper was the omission of the modifying adjective “unmanaged.
In correcting this omission, one can generalize the practical conclusion in this way: “A ‘managed commons’ describes either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise. The devil is in the details. But with an unmanaged commons, you can forget about the devil: As overuse of resources reduces carrying capacity, ruin is inevitable. With this modification firmly in place, “The Tragedy of the Commons” is well tailored for further interdisciplinary syntheses. A final word about interdisciplinary work–do not underestimate its difficulties. The more specialties we try to stitch together, the greater are our opportunities to make mistakes–and the more numerous are our willing critics.