“[T]hey 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.” – Thucydides (ca. 460 B.C.-ca. 395 B.C.)
Tragedy Of The Common Waters
To sum up the situation in the Pacific right now: the Pacific Ocean is a waste dump. From ships going out to sea to dispose of things, to sewers and waste pipes that find their way to the water, millions of tons of waste are dumped in the ocean on a yearly basis. Why? Because it’s common territory, unregulated, a free-for-all. Not having clear ownership or stewardship of the waters leads to confusion, abuse, and damage, and abuse, all of which amount to a tragedy.
News of the giant garbage patch that floats in the Pacific Ocean, probably the greatest patch of waste on earth, has circled the globe. The subject of science programs, documentaries, news shows and environmental shows, it’s a catastrophe in the making. The longer it remains unsolved, our way of life is in jeopardy. It’s part of a greater problem, a classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons.
Here’s an example of how the Tragedy of the Commons works. Find a patch of land capable of sustaining one hundred cows. Assign that land to one hundred farmers. Tell these farmers they’re allowed to work the land on capacity, i.e. with one cow each. Don’t fence the land into one hundred grazing lots because the animals need their space, the ability to roam and graze. Let the farmers introduce their livestock. Observe what follows:
Without grazing lots – for which farmers would be solely accountable, to each one’s own – cows go to work on the entire area, unregulated. It’s a free-for-all, no controls over how much each unit eats. Some farmers lose out, so they add another animal to the herd. Who’s going to notice an extra head in one hundred? What harm can it do?
It’s clear that the land is in for a rough patch (excuse the pun). The greedy farmers increase their stake alongside the others, eager to take advantage. The grazing area is depleted, and some cows starve.
If each farmer were assigned his or her lot from the onset, on the other hand, the situation would be avoided. People tend to mind their private resources, making sure they hold up. Each lot would be separate, private, an individual unit on a viable piece of land. Bad farmers would stick out, making way for better farmers i.e. those able to sustain their allotted areas.
More Tragic Examples
Here are a few everyday examples of resource mismanagement based on commons-related mentality:
- Office material and supplies in companies and businesses: they tend to disappear, break down or get stolen because they’re common property. The Xerox machine and the printer: abused. Pens and paper: snatched – electricity and running water: wasted.
- The civil service: it tends to be slower, more bureaucratic and less efficient than the private sector because people are less accountable in its setup. With jobs guaranteed and little competition between positions, all benefits taken care of by unions and state pensions, and no one getting fired except in times of austerity or privatization, some departments become giant common playgrounds where accountability is shirked. Those among us who have gone to any government department to get a simple form signed – and had to wait a whole day for it, arguing with inconsiderate, inefficient civil servants over small details – know how bad it gets in these situations.
- Charity money given to charity organizations: it tends to be misused, or diluted to minimal impact. Spread out across the board to cover various agenda, it trickles down in smaller fractions, alleviating some of the burden without giving people hope that someone is looking out for them in ways that make a difference. Having the Red Cross ship in wheat or health supplies is beneficial in times of crisis, no doubt, but having a sponsor assigned to a family starving in Africa or India, letting that family know that they’re not just numbers in a sea of faces but actual persons, whose names their benefactors know and whose cases they monitor, is even better.
- Tax money absorbed by the government: it’s reallocated to giant and complex government mechanisms that haven’t earned it. These departments and their employees work with money that isn’t theirs, and which is taken for granted – not made, but collected by law – so they tend to misuse/abuse it. Whatever monies find their way down to a public project or initiative are often less than what went in to begin with i.e. it gets “skimmed”. This is what happens in sectors where funds are siphoned and not earned. People tend to abuse common pools of money.
- The seas as international waters and not anyone’s assigned responsibility, for which someone may be held accountable: they’re giant waste grounds because no one regulates what goes on there. Those who monitor the waters, from science organizations to environmental and other civil groups, have no authority or muscle to prevent what’s happening, and the tragedy of the common waters continues unabated.
- The air, another area common to all human beings: abused to an unprecedented degree. All kinds of substances are released into the atmosphere, as if we don’t live in a closed loop which will be saturated at some point. In other words, it’s as if we have locked ourselves in the garage and left the car running. We don’t care because it’s a pretty big garage and the fumes get diluted over volume – we’re sad in our ignorance – but sooner or later the air is tainted and we wonder why we feel faint and weak and poisoned.
- The soil suffers like the air. Another common area where pollutants are dumped. No one is really responsible for the earth’s sub-terrain, so it ends used abused.
- Earth’s resources are perhaps the greatest common tragedy of all. Open to prospecting and up for grabs, they start off as common property. First come, first served, by which time they turn into private property. It’s good for business and development, as well as for competition and social mobility, but it’s tragic for the planet, and for us, too, in the long run. Who monitors how these resources can be replenished? Those who do, do they have muscle, teeth – how does it work? The ugly truth is, it’s a feeding frenzy. Prospecting and development are the means to an end in an out-of-control rat race where everyone tries to get whatever they can with no regard for the future. Oil reserves are getting depleted (actually that may be a good thing, good riddance, and not a moment too soon) as are the forests, natural gas reserves, fresh water reserves, minerals, oxygen, fish stock, land, you name it, it’s getting creamed, eaten up. We show no regard for the future, all sense of strategy and planning out the window. Just an endless run at common resources, forgetting that when they run out, so will we.
Common property and unaccountability result in neglect and abuse. All sense of reason is eliminated in the wake of not feeling responsible – or affected by – what’s going on. Some of it is bearable and can be dealt with, but there’s a point beyond which it gets dangerous. While companies may be able to afford an extra few dollars for office material getting stolen, humanity can’t afford abuse of the earth’s resources. There are no second chances in this game, at least not without involving a downgrade to a post-apocalyptic, desolate lifestyle. We need to get serious and count our resources before exploiting them.
Failure to be responsible results in abuse, and we end up right where we are now, doing irrational things, wondering where our resources are going, why the oceans are dying out, why cancer is on the rise, how plastic and toxic metals find their way in our food chain, why we cut down the earth’s forests and divert its rivers and waterways. We end up watching this great irrational biblical tragedy unfold, playing our part in some form or other, wondering who among us will stand up and say, Enough with this madness! Settle down!
If we’re to stay civilized – and not descend to chaos – let’s act the part. First and foremost, let’s plan ahead, figure out how potent this patch of earth is before we start grazing on it. It’s a pain in the backside, planning, but it beats amateur enthusiasm and reckless abandon.
This is the first article in a series that will explore the tragedy of the commons in greater depth, setting the foundation for an initiative on how to identify it, minimize it, and eliminate it where possible. The buck stops here, with every individual. Be accountable for our behavior, to each our own, and together we begin a process that sets the foundation for overall change.
Let’s begin by sharing this article with as many people as we know, environmentally inclined or not, it doesn’t matter. The tragedy of the commons affects us all, in more ways than one, and the best way to tackle it is to stop getting lost in the common crowd. We make a difference, each and everyone one of us, adding our bit to the process. The point is to make a statement, and keep making one until it resonates.
Failure to do so leads to a tragedy not even the Greeks could have scripted.
Then again, they did, and their state is failing, all because it was plundered like a common patch of grass with no regard for tomorrow. I’ve covered it in past articles, and have a feeling I’ll keep doing so for a time to come.
Let Greece’s shortcomings be a warning to us all. We can avoid tragedy, if we put our minds and hearts to it.