The Commons and the Conscience

By:  Lindsay Sementelli

As you may already know, in my last two posts, I have been thinking about ways for people to change their way of thinking about our relationship to the natural world.  Once again, as Philip Loring wrote, we are not intrinsically at odds with nature even though many other great minds have paved the way for us to have this type of attitude.  In his article “It’s Time for a New Story of Humanity’s Place in the World,” Loring mentioned the late Garrett Hardin, a professor of biology at University of California, Santa Barbara who published the influential “Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968.  The tragedy of the commons is an elaborate metaphor and philosophy Hardin uses to demonstrate how we humans are exhausting the earth and to suggest how we can, either for the better or worse of our personal freedoms, make a big change.  Ultimately, this is our own choice.

So, what are these “commons” that Hardin is speaking of?  Imagine the commons as an enormous stretch of open farmland.  A farmer may start out putting a small herd of cows (their own personal resource) onto this vast pasture (a resource that must be shared).  This person will eventually come to realize that they will benefit from adding more cows to their herd.  As they add the animals one by one, they will have more meat and milk for themselves or cows to sell or trade for other resources.  How will adding just a small amount of cows, or even just one more cow to the herd make a real impact?  An impact is made because this particular farmer is not the only one expanding their herd.  If every farmer puts just one more cow out into the pasture while only thinking about how they will benefit from the animal, the pasture will inevitably become too crowded.

Many problems will come along with this overcrowding.  Since this pasture is a shared public resource, all cows and all farmers will be affected.  The pasture will become overgrazed, so all people will not have an equal chance to use the land and expand their own herds.  Such farmers will be pushed out of the land and given less opportunity to support themselves because there is simply not enough space.  Now, let’s step back and look at how this harms the natural world and not just the humans.  If the cows eat up all of the grass in the pasture, the land is destroyed and cannot replenish itself quickly enough to sustain the cows.  Our overzealous actions in this scenario cause a domino effect that will only hurt us in the end by depleting our personal property and supplies of important resources.  (This is just my own, as brief as possible interpretation of this metaphor!  Read “Tragedy of the Commons” in full at http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html)

This is how an important topic of debate today falls into place—the issue of how such a small percentage of people seemingly end up with a large percentage of wealth, resources and opportunities.  Hardin explains how many other currently relevant topics are affected by the idea of the commons as well.  We think that if we choose to do whatever we want with land because we own it or if we have many children because we can currently afford to support them, it is not anyone’s business to interfere.  The truth, Hardin fears, is that we do not think of the long-term consequences of our own choices or how they will impact future generations.  According to him, the solutions to human actions that deplete the earth (like pollution and overpopulation) are to either take personal accountability for our actions out of our own free will or governmental measures may have to be put into place to ensure a better future for humans and non-human living things alike.

This second option surely seems bleak to many people.  It brings to mind many questions like, who can tell us how many children we can have, how much land we can own and whether or not we destroy that land if we so choose?  Why does this matter to anyone else if these things are our own?  It matters because our choices always have consequences—if not on ourselves, then on future generations, on those less fortunate than ourselves and on all of those voiceless but nonetheless, breathing and living things in this world.  This is where the shift in thinking that Loring writes of comes into play.  Aspects of Hardin’s view seem like an ominous vision of the world to come, but things do not need to go that far.  We do not need to fear the loss of our freedoms if we can learn to adapt to living in a more sustainable way.  We need to realize that small actions do make a difference and can add up to a way of life that helps us exist more harmoniously with our world, each other and even our own consciences.

For more real world examples of the tragedy of the commons, check out http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/ten-reallife-examples-of-the-tragedy-of-the-common.html.

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2 thoughts on “The Commons and the Conscience”

  1. Another thing about the concept of the commons (and the tragedy) that I think is interesting and important is recognition that the entire common property paradigm constrains how we think about land and other resources–either they are private property or common property. Interestingly, though, the original uses of the concept of the commons were not about property held individually or in common, but access/territorial use rights that were held in common for lands that were no-one’s property. I think we could solve many “commons” issues if we thought less about property in a strict capitalist sense and instead thought from the perspectives of territory and habitat. We are seeing some people experiment in fisheries with “territorial use rights” for local food harvest, which seems to remove the incentive to overharvest in the first place.

    By the way, thanks for the shout outs! I enjoyed these posts immensely. Especially the Rise Against reference!

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    1. Hi Phil!

      So sorry for the delay in posting your comment and responding. Thanks so much for writing the great article that Priscilla and I enjoyed and were inspired by. I’m really excited to learn that you enjoyed these posts!

      -Lindsay

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