March 4, 2012
Note: The article below is dedicated to the brave and concerned members of civil society seeking to stop the Lynas Red Earth Project, Gebeng, Pahang. The Good Earth needs tender loving care. It is our legacy to generations yet unborn. So protect our natural habitat. Indifference is not an option. And please avoid the tragedy of the commons.–Din Merican
Managing the Future
Foundation For the Future, located in Bellevue, Washington, is a nonprofit foundation with a mission to increase and diffuse knowledge concerning the long-term future of humanity. What I am going to be speaking to you about today are not the views of the Foundation.
The views I present to you are mine and are based on the fact that over the last 13 years I have interacted with over 300 scholars from all over the world and engaged them in conversations about the long-term future, and the fact that in my previous incarnation I was entrenched in the business world for more than 30 years in a variety of what you could characterize as “leadership positions.”
I will start by showing you a video entitled Pale Blue Dot. The commentary is by Carl Sagan. My reason for showing this to you is to set the stage, to get you to place yourself outside of your current world, your current worldviews, whatever they may be, and thus to establish a context, a perspective on which I will try to elaborate.
What we are talking about is a planet that is about 4.5 billion years old but the emergence of humans representing a fraction of a second before midnight on the scale of a 24-hour day. The Royal Geological Society is the organization that meets to establish the beginnings and ends of important geological eras and epochs … they are the ones that determine that we have been through geologic epochs starting with the Paleocene and till recently in the Holocene. They met a couple of years ago, however, and agreed unanimously that we are now in the Anthropocene, signifying the fact that humans have taken charge of the planet and have altered and will continue to significantly alter the nature of the planet.
What I am going to attempt to do is to talk to you about the pale blue dot and what is happening on it, and thus to give you a sense for what it will mean to be leaders of real vision and substance in a world that is on the verge of an extraordinary set of transitions, most of which are reaching tipping points and are altering the world irreversibly.
State of the World
To begin with, I am going to give you a report on the “State of the World.” There are any number of transitions that are emerging on the planet. An important thing I want to point out before proceeding any further is that all that I have to say with respect to time frames involves much more than a 5-year or a 10-year horizon. I will be referring to time frames that are generational in nature, if not longer, but also the fact that actions and decisions taken must keep this in mind.
On a daily basis we are bombarded about globalization. However, it is as if this is something that is happening now. The simple facts indicate otherwise. I will submit to you that globalization started with modern humans, having evolved from chimpanzees and then emerging out of Africa, by estimates anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 years ago, and colonizing the planet in multiple waves. A fact to keep in mind as leaders is that, genetically speaking, we are all Africans … and equally or more important, our DNA is similar to that of the chimpanzee to the extent of nearly 99 percent. On a personal note, my DNA sample revealed that even though I was born and reared in India, a specific mutation I carry – M17– first occurred in ancestors 13,000 years ago in Central Asia, in the Ukraine, when horses were first domesticated and the Indo-European languages originated.
So, in terms of the phenomenon of globalization, the correct way to view it is to think that it is reaching a tipping point – a tipping point in not just the economic but also the political, cultural, and faith and belief systems aspects. The phase we are in, evolutionarily speaking, is what can be characterized as Cultural Evolution, having arrived here via several previous stages starting with the Big Bang as Particulate, Galactic, Stellar, Planetary, Chemical, Biological, and now passing through the stage of Cultural Evolution, leading up to the next stage, described as Ethical Evolution. What I will be focusing on are these last two stages and what it means to be leaders in them.
A more optimistic view of human civilizations based on the inevitability of scientific, technological revolutions is presented by Michio Kaku, the distinguished physicist, in his book Visions. He describes human civilization going in stages from a Type 0 (which we are in) to a Type 3, but clearly warning that we are now in the most dangerous of times.
As humans, we are interacting in all these dimensions globally, at a rate and magnitude that is unique in human history. As such, there are attritional aspects to this globalization that, in an evolutionary sense, will create winners and losers in ideas. For instance, evidence is mounting that we may be looking at the onset of the end of the nation-state and the emergence of planetary governance. In economics, for sure, it no longer makes sense to think in terms of a “national economy.” The recent upheavals in the marketplace are clear testimony to that. Culturally and in terms of systems of faith and belief, ideas are intersecting at a phenomenal rate, to the extent that icons of cultural identity are no longer located in isolated areas. Even as yoga and Eastern mysticism and Thai food and temples and mosques are available around the corner here in Bellevue, McDonalds, Starbucks, Hollywood movies, Time magazine, and churches are available at any street corner in urban India.
I think it is a mistake to think in terms of these changes within our milieus as good or bad, but more as a process working itself out, a process of the selection of ideas for fitness. In this sense, I would say that fundamentalisms of the religious variety, nationalism, national exceptionalism, cultural Puritanism, unipolarity of power, and dominance in economy are in their final stages of demise and will all be things of the past, if they are not already.
But even as globalization is at a tipping point, there are many other phenomena that are at or near tipping points. Climate change, opposition to it notwithstanding, is a fact with an overwhelming majority of scientists and scientific evidence. CO2 that used to be 290 parts per million in the atmosphere is now at 400 and expected to approach 500 ppm in a few decades. What is not well understood is that the half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere is not 20 or 50 years but in the neighborhood of hundreds of years. As such, the CO2 being emitted on a daily basis is adding to the CO2 that has been in the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, causing some scientists to believe that the Earth’s capacity to act as a sink has been outstripped long ago. In other words, these scientists believe that climate change is not only a fact but that it is now irreversible even as there are torrid debates about mitigation versus adaptation. It may be a moot debate.
We go about our daily routines indulging in the relatively new fad of drinking bottled water, not realizing that the footprint of a bottle of water is on the order of three liters of water used to produce one liter of water. In the United States in 2006, the bottled water industry consumed 17 million barrels of oil and emitted 2.5 million tons of CO2. More important, what needs to be understood is that the amount of water that the planet produces annually has been a fixed quantity forever, and more, that we have been depleting dead storage of water from aquifers and surface storage at an alarming rate. A water crisis is looming that, in the view of some scientists, will be far more devastating than the exhaustion of fossil fuels. Northern China, large parts of Australia, the southwestern United States, the Middle East, India, large parts of Africa, and the Soviet Union are in a condition of serious deficits in water, even now. Wars, dislocation of hundreds of millions of humans, and the associated issues are expected to continue to increase over the coming decades.
Topsoils are disappearing at an alarming rate due to methods of agriculture and other conditions. The planet has no more than three feet of topsoil and it takes a hundred years to produce one or two inches of topsoil, but we are using it up at the rate of one inch per decade. This is according to Dr. David Montgomery, a MacArthur Foundation Genius awardee from our own University of Washington, in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (University of California Press, 2007).
The impending exhaustion of fossil fuels is no longer a debate. Give or take 10 years on either side of 30, they are expected to run out, at current rates of consumption, alongside of severe resistance to creation of alternatives sources and other changes in behavior that are needed due to competing interests.
It has been estimated by highly respected scientists that we are now losing in the neighborhood of 20,000-plus species every year.
A very famous essay puts all this in context in a very simple and easily understood form. The essay is by Garrett Hardin and the title of his essay is “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Each and every one of the issues I have mentioned fits the description of a tragedy of the commons, where everyone pursues his self-interest and seeks to optimize his outcomes but in the process creates tragedies that no one is held accountable for and that affect all down the road.
Given all this, the first question to ask is: How did this come to pass? The answers are evident. Human populations have gone from 1 billion to 6 billion in just 100 years and are expected to rise to 9 billion in about 30 years. Our consumption of goods and services has gone up accordingly, from about $4 trillion of Gross World Product to $40 trillion in just 100 years – without challenging the implicit assumption that all 6.5 billion of us (soon to be 9 billion) can and will consume at the same rate as those in the developed economies do. In this context, a couple of facts are important to keep in mind.
The planet is a closed system with only one external input, sunshine. Whether it be mineral resources or oil, nothing new will be created any time soon, so what we are dealing with is the inevitability of exhaustion of all that is necessary for our civilization to continue. Science and technology will, of course, find solutions, and there is always space to colonize, but the bottom line is that, according to the Optimum Population Trust in the UK, human populations on the planet exceed the carrying capacity of the planet by a multiple of at least 3, with the assumption of an average standard of living.
Given all this, we as a species are, of course, not sitting still. The awareness has come about and attempts at solutions are underway, however feeble or ineffective the outcomes are likely to be. The big words today are going Green, cap and trade, sustainability. But again, take a closer look at what these words actually mean or imply. The word sustainability means adoption of concepts and strategies that will enable us to live as we do, without jeopardizing the interests of future generations. But once again we must ask the questions concerning this definition: Why? and What are the assumptions underlying this definition? The answer is, again, simple. We continue to have abiding faith in the correctness and relevance of our way of life, our values, and our beliefs, and unquestioned belief in the fact that we are in charge. Adaptation (without questioning these assumptions) is what is provided as the answer.
Two Elephants in the Room
But I think this is, again, an incomplete exercise. All it does is ignore the “elephants in the room” and “kicks the can down the road,” to use a couple of clichés. The elephants in the room are, one, the process by which the future actually emerges, and, two, the validity of the worldview that forms the basis on which we act.
Let us look at the first elephant in the room: the idea that we are in charge. I am sure that as leaders you must experience the frustration of not arriving at destinations you have visualized and led towards, or the realization that the outcomes usually fall short of expectations. This is because the multitude of variables and the complex interactions that occur in your organization, let alone on a planetary basis, are simply beyond our capacities to manage toward desired outcomes.
The lesson here is that everyone has a role to play but the result takes care of itself by way of phenomena that can be variously described as “self-organizing,” and this process involves understanding the fact that in complex systems, instability is inherent; nonlinearity is the prevailing condition; black swans do exist and occur; and tipping points come about. And an extremely important corollary to this is that as the complexity of a system increases, its fragility also increases. Complex systems are much more subject to breakdown due to weak links.
Perhaps a metaphor will assist in thinking about this. Assume that grains of sand are being added to a surface at multiple points. As this process continues, it is easy to see that multiple regions will see aggregations of sand in small piles, and as the process continues, these local sand piles will collapse and merge into the neighboring small piles, creating a new contour, and eventually the entire surface will coalesce into a single pile.
If we extend this analogy to humans as grains of sand with their inputs, it is easy to see that while we all have inputs to the system, the outcomes are not in our control. We are active walkers in a self-organizing system. And our inputs are information, choices, decisions, and actions. There is an abundance of literature that describes these concepts. I would submit to you that this analogy is of value and can be used in managing in a bottom-up fashion – tending to the quality of the information, choices, decisions, and actions that are taken in a bottom-up fashion – as opposed to the traditional top-down process, to produce better sand piles. I would summarize this by saying that progress is a process and not an event.
As for the second, much bigger elephant in the room – worldviews – three can be identified. The first is, of course, the Divine Creation worldview, as prevalent in all the major and minor religions of the world, which by last count add up to some 270. The second major revolution in worldviews occurred when Charles Darwin explained how the world around us came to be. And the third worldview, and the one that is dominant, is what I will describe as “anthropocentrism,” aided and abetted by the other two worldviews with significant departures.
The underlying rationale for the anthropocentric worldview is that science, knowledge, progress, development, secularism, and democracy are all sacred cows (pardon the pun), but, more important, that we are the apex of creation and we have the ability to define our futures and are duty-bound to go out and make them happen. Human agency has been raised to the pinnacle of divinity. It is inclusive of all the utopian ideas that have emerged in recent times such as communism, democracy, capitalism, egalitarianism, sanctity, dignity, superiority of human life, dominion over nature, the potential for unlimited progress, the imperative to do good works, and on and on. This view has been predominant for the last couple of millennia, and certainly today. How did these worldviews emerge? Spencer Wells, the population scientist, in his new book, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (Random House, 2010), concludes that the foundation for this worldview was laid with humans transitioning from hunter-gatherers to an agriculture-based society, and about 2000 years more recently with the onset of monotheism and the Abrahamic religious traditions.
So what do we have when we juxtapose all that I have described as major issues facing us and the process and the worldview? The simplest conclusion I can come to is that they are at odds with each other. Something has to give.
In this context, I should point out something that is of great significance. The process of natural evolution is inclusive of the fact that 99 percent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct, and in the bigger scheme of things, we are not exempt.
A direct outcome of this is misdirected effort underway that I am compelled to comment on. Sustainability is often talked about in the same breath with saving the planet. I cannot think of anything more foolish. The planet has been around for 4.5 billion years and is expected to be around for another 6 or 7 billion. What we have to worry about is us surviving as a species, not the planet. Describing the problem this way, we distract attention from the fact that what we need to change is ourselves and what we believe, and not the planet. The planet is perfectly capable of taking care of itself.
To my way of thinking, the worldview that is appropriate and mandatory for us to continue as a species to think about and perhaps acknowledge is, as human history shows, that the best-laid plans of mice and men don’t really come about, so evolution is still the answer – cultural evolution, that is, but leading, one would hope, toward ethical evolution. The real question is: Will humans at this point, firmly rooted in the presumption of being in charge, lead and preempt the possibility of collapse, or react as it occurs?
History has shown that we are not very good as a species at preemption and, in fact, may be limited by our hardwiring to be capable only of reacting. But a second, more important thing to consider is that all the tragedies of the commons are symptoms. This is the dawn of the Anthropocene that I described earlier. Economy, business, and leaders have functioned within these values for well over a millennium.
So, my first recommendation to you leaders in business is to ask and answer questions about what should be the values going forward. Let me put forward a list of things that will help you prepare to lead.
The value system I would propose under the banner of ethical evolution going forward includes (1) the inseparability of humans and the world around us – our essential connectedness with all that is alive around us and our interdependence on each other as humans and (2) our sense of ourselves in terms of identity elevated to a level that goes beyond all that we have known thus far – that we are citizens of a planet at a point in our evolution where our surviving as a species is at considerable risk. This does not mean that we forego or eliminate all our other identities.
A fair question that is still begging for an answer is whether we are, evolutionarily speaking, hardwired to be incapable of this proposed value system. One can play a thought experiment in this regard. Suppose a real hostile-alien threat is identified tomorrow morning. Would we act in unison as a species? After some internal wrangling, my bet would be that we would. But then think about the fact that the challenges we face here on the planet are of equal magnitude and danger, so we had better start to think in unison!
One way or another, this requirement is being forced upon us, like it or not. We must look past our current structures of governance, ideologies, and leadership that seek to fix us in our current identities because they enhance the perpetuation of entrenched interests, whether they be political, religious, or cultural, all of which are obsolete and must be discarded if we are to step forward toward ensuring our futures.
Five Sets of Ideas
Allow me now to share with you some sets of ideas that have emerged and have great potential going forward toward providing alternatives that are more in line with the facts.
The first set of ideas has to do with tactics for leadership that you could employ to increase your probabilities for success. I have already described the analogy of the sand pile and its value in managing the bottom-up process of ensuring the integrity of the information, choices, and decisions that are made in a bottom-up fashion. Let me now elaborate on a couple of more ideas.
The second point is the imperative to ask “Why?” continuously, rather than settling for the first answer to the first “Why?” It will be apparent that with this process you will get to the real cause, as opposed to merely identifying another symptom. Another way to say it is that when you are addressing a problem, get past falling into the trap of acting on immediate or proximate cause and keep drilling till you get to the ultimate cause.
The third set of things has to do with what I have described as the tragedies of the commons with regard to the larger issues facing us, but tragedies of the commons are a daily occurrence within your organizations, things that you as leaders deal with on a daily basis. The problem is with the fact that structurally, organizations are hierarchic with responsibilities, objectives, and incentives designed on a functional basis, whereas if you carefully examine the nature of the problems by continuing to ask why a problem exists, you will find that the cause is usually associated with an interface between two or more functions. In other words, the causes lie in the boundary areas of functions where functions intersect, which is the “no man’s land” of management. Staff meetings and multifunctional problem-solving groups are what follow as attempts to solve these interface issues. I would submit to you that as leaders you should require yourself and your functional leaders to focus only on the boundary area issues, to construct their job descriptions and their incentives to not only have function area control but, more important, to spend the majority of their time in the intersecting boundary areas.
William Oncken wrote a classic essay on management titled “The Care and Feeding of Monkeys,” basically suggesting that when a manager walks into your office to plant a monkey on your shoulders and walk away, make sure that you refuse to accept this monkey. Put it right back on the shoulders of that manager and demand that he interact with the other managers to focus on these boundary, intersecting areas.
The fourth point that I would like to run by you is what has been abundantly clearly laid out by Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, and Paul Hawken in their book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Little, Brown & Company, 2000). They identify four fundamental principles that broadly align with the safeguarding of our future as a species and the preservation of the planet, not to mention your organization and business:
1. Focus on productivity per unit of natural resources used in the business, alongside of the conventional measures of productivity of labor and capital.
2. Design or redesign production on the logic of the biological world with closed loops, eliminating waste or toxicity.
3. Choose a model of business switching from selling goods to delivering a continuous flow of service and value.
4. Reinvest in restoring, sustaining, and expanding the stock of natural capital used in the business.
The fifth set of ideas I would like to share with you, especially if you are entrepreneurial, is to look at opportunities that are emerging under the description of “biomimicry.” Please visit a TED talk by Janine Benyus on this subject. For example
The central idea in biomimicry is the conscious emulation of life’s genius that you observe all around you every day. The opportunities in biomimicry relate to duplicating natural processes, all of which contribute to sustainability practices. It starts with important questions relative to your own business: How does life around us make things? How does life make the most of things? How does life make things disappear into systems?
The technologies that nature reveals by asking these questions stretch across multiple possibilities such as self-assembly, solar transformation, the power of shape, quenching of thirst, separation of entities, green chemistry, timed degradation, resilience and heating, sensing and responding, growing and fertility, and life-creating conditions. I might add that extensive research and even startups already exist to exploit several of these areas.
And finally, I would like to address the issue of homework, as it relates to your intellectual horizons. I would like to plead with you to delve into a set of areas that, on the face of it, may not seem relevant, but once you get going, the relevance and value will be self-evident in terms of structuring values, beliefs, and visions that will enhance your capacity to lead in an enlightened fashion, keeping your immediate interests and the interests of future generations in mind.
The first of these areas is critical thinking. Not only should you be intensely familiar with the methodology of critical thinking, but also you should require every one in your organization to assimilate and practice this discipline.
Critical thinking relates to methods on “how to think.” Do get familiar with the current state of knowledge on the subject of evolution, both biological and cultural. Read up on ideas pertaining to the planet as a system – Gaia, that is. Spend some time learning about chaos theory. Look into emerging critiques of conventional economics especially as it relates to the substantive challenges that are being posed with respect to how we measure things such as costs, profit, loss, assets, GDP, etc., and finally, get familiar (at least at an elementary level) with the most significant emerging scientific revolution of our times, which occurred in 1954 with the discovery of the DNA molecule – I mean the field of genetics and quantum theory.
I have compiled a reading list as a starting point. Thank you for listening and good luck.
Recommended Reading List
Ayres, Ed (1999). God’s Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.
Brand, Stewart (1999). The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility.New York: Basic Books.
Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Press.
Elgin, Duane (2010). Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. 2nd Revised Edition. New York: Harper.
Foundation for Critical Thinking. Website and other materials. http://www.criticalthinking.org [Accessed 23 April 2010].
Gladwell, Malcolm (2000). Tipping Points: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Gleick, James (1987). Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books.
Hardin, Garrett (1968). “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Essay. Science, 162: 1243–1248.
Hawken, Paul (2007). Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. New York: Penguin Group (USA).
Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins (1999). Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Inayatullah, Sohail (2004). The Causal Layered Analysis Reader: Theory and Case Studies of an Integrative and Transformative Methodology. Tamsui, Taiwan: Tamkang University Press.
Lovelock, James (2006). The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic Books.
Shamos, Morris H. (1995). The Myth of Scientific Literacy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Smil, Vaclav (2008). Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2007). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House.
Ward, Peter (2010). The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps. New York: Basic Books.
Wells, Spencer (2010). Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization. New York: Random House Publishing Group.
Wilson, Edward O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wright, Robert (2000). Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny. New York: Vintage Books.
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On the Concept of the Tragedy of the Commons
The concept of the Tragedy of the Commons is extremely important for understanding the degradation of our environment. The concept was clearly expressed for the first time by Garrett Hardin in his now famous article in Science in 1968, which is “widely accepted as a fundamental contribution to ecology, population theory, economics and political science.” Hardin: University of California Santa Barbara.
Garrett Hardin, the author of Tragedy of the Commons, in 1963.
From The Garrett Hardin Society.
The Basic Idea
If a resource is held in common for use by all, then ultimately that resource will be destroyed. “Freedom in a common brings ruin to all.” To avoid the ultimate destruction, we must change our human values and ideas of morality.
- “Held in common” means the resource is owned by no one, or owned by a group, all of whom have access to the resource.
- “Ultimately” means after many years, maybe centuries. The time interval is closely tied to population increase of those who have access to the resource. The greater the number of people using a resource, the faster it is destroyed. Thus the Tragedy of the Commons is directly tied to over population.
- The resource must be available for use. Iron in earth’s core is held in common, but it is inaccessible, and it will not be destroyed.
- Resources held by individuals, even if the individual destroys the resource, is not an example of the Tragedy of the Commons.
- Hardin used the word “tragedy” as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead used it:”The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” He [Whitehead] then goes on to say, “This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama.” Hardin (1968)Once the stage is set in a dramatic tragedy, there is no escape from the unhappy ending.
- Note that the tragedy does not need to follow from greed. In the example below, we all breath the air. This degrades the common resource: air. But we breath not because we are greedy, but because we want to live. Any sustained increase of population in a finite biosystem ends in tragedy.In brief, tragedy is logically dependent only on the assumption that there is steady growth in the use of land or resources within any finite ecosystem; it is not logically dependent on the conventions of any specific political and economic system.
From A General Statement of Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons by Herschel Elliott.
- We can avoid tragedy only by altering our values, by changing the way we live. There is no technical solution.The general statement of the tragedy of the commons demonstrates that an a priori ethics constructed on human-centered, moral principles and a definition of equal justice cannot prevent and indeed always supports growth in population and consumption. Such growth, though not inevitable, is a constant threat. If continual growth should ever occur, it eventually causes the breakdown of the ecosystems which support civilization. … Specifically, Hardin’s thought experiment with an imaginary commons demonstrates the futility — the absurdity — of much traditional ethical thinking.
From A General Statement of Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commonsby Herschel Elliott.
We will not delve further into the ethical implications. They are profound and far reaching.
Garrett rephrased his idea in 1985:
As a result of discussions carried out during the past decade I now suggest a better wording of the central idea:Under conditions of overpopulation, freedom in an unmanaged commons brings ruin to all.
From Hardin (1985) An Ecolate View of the Human Predicament.
Examples of Common Resources
- Air. No one owns the air, it is available for all to use, and its unlimited use leads to air pollution.
- Water. Water in the seas, estuaries, and the ocean is a common resource. But, water in lakes and rivers is often owned by cities, farmers, or others, especially in the western US.
- Fish of the sea.
Hardin writes that 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.
The concept that air, water, and fish are held in common for use by all was first codified into law by the Romans. In 535 AD, under the direction of Tribonian, the Corpus Iurus Civilis [Body of Civil Law] was issued in three parts, in Latin, at the order of the Emperor Justinian: the Codex Justinianus, the Digest, or Pandects, and the Institutes. The Codex Justinianus (issued in 529 AD) compiled all of the extant (in Justinian’s time) imperial constitutions from the time of Hadrian. It used both the Codex Theodosianus and private collections such as the Codex Gregorianus and Codex Hermogenianus. From: The “Codex Justinianus” Medieval Sourcebook: The Institutes, 535 CE. Here is the pertinent text:
Codex Justinianus (529) (Justinian Code), Book II, Part III. The Division of Things:
1. By the law of nature these things are common to mankind—the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea. No one, therefore, is forbidden to approach the seashore, provided that he respects habitationes, monuments, and buildings which are not, like the sea, subject only to the law of nations.
2. All rivers and ports are public; hence the right of fishing in a port, or in rivers, is common to all men.
3. The seashore extends as far as the greatest winter flood runs up. …
5. The public use of the seashore, too, is part of the law of nations, as is that of the sea itself; and, therefore, any person is at liberty to place on it a cottage, to which he may retreat, or to dry his nets there, and haul them from the sea; for the shores may be said to be the property of no man, but are subject to the same law as the sea itself, and the sand or ground beneath it. …
12. Wild beasts, birds, fish and all animals, which live either in the sea, the air, or the earth, so soon as they are taken by anyone, immediately become by the law of nations the property of the captor; for natural reason gives to the first occupant that which had no previous owner. And it is immaterial whether a man takes wild beasts or birds upon his own ground, or on that of another. Of course any one who enters the ground of another for the sake of hunting or fowling, may be prohibited by the proprietor, if he perceives his intention of entering.
From: The “Codex Justinianus” Medieval Sourcebook: The Institutes, 535 CE.
A General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons
The philosopher Herschel Elliott states that there are four general premises that entail the tragedy of the commons:
- The Earth is finite: it has a limited stock of renewable fuels, minerals, and biological resources, a limited throughput of energy from the sun, and a finite sink for processing wastes.
- Although human activity very often does occur on privately owned lands which are not a commons, that and all other human activities take place in some larger natural commons. And that larger commons is a limited biosystem which is in a dynamic, competitive, and constantly evolving equilibrium.The equilibrium of an ecosystem can usually accommodate any activity on the part of its members as long as that activity is limited in amount and/or is practiced only by a small population. But continuous growth in the numbers of any organism or in its exploitation of land and resources will eventually exceed the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain that organism.
- Now for the first time on global scale human beings are exceeding the land and resource use which the Earth’s biosystem can sustain.
- Certainly it is true, as Hardin noted, that individuals who seek to maximize their material consumption contribute to the ever increasing exploitation of the world’s commons. But it is also true that all who follow the rarely questioned principles of humanitarian ethics — to save all human lives, to relieve all human misery, to prevent and cure disease, to foster universal human rights, and to assure equal justice and equal opportunity for everyone — do so also.
From A General Statement of Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons by Herschel Elliott.
The large and rapid increase in population since the beginning of the anthropocene has altered the global commons. Will our atmosphere, rivers, lands, and ocean ultimately be destroyed because they are held in common for use by all? Will we place ever stronger restrictions on their use? Or will we limit the population of the world?
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. Traffic is rigidly controlled. 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.
– Hardin (1998): Extensions of “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
Jared Diamond in his book Collapse describes in detail the collapse of civilizations that failed to solve the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons. He writes of Pitcairn and Henderson Islands in the Pacific (page 120):
Many centuries ago, immigrants came to a fertile land blessed with apparently inexhaustible resources. While the land lacked a few raw materials useful for industry, those materials were readily obtained by overseas trade with poorer lands that happened to have deposits of them. For a time, all the lands prospered, and their populations multiplied.
But the population of that rich land eventually multiplied beyond the numbers that even its abundant resources could support. As its forests were felled and its soils eroded, its agricultural productivity was no longer sufficient to generate export surpluses, build ships, or even to nourish its own population. With that decline of trade, shortages of the imported raw materials developed. Civil war spread, as established political institutions were overthrown by a kaleidoscopically changing succession of local military leaders. The starving populace of the rich land survived by turning to cannibalism. Their former overseas trade partners met an even worse fate: deprived of the imports on which they had depended, they in turn ravaged their own environment until no one was left alive.
Tragedy is not inevitable. Jared Diamond described how some societies avoided tragedy, at least locally. The people of Tikopia, Japan, and the New Guinea highlands saved their forests and the agrarian economy which depended on forests. All limited their population to what could be sustained by their economy.
There Is No Technical Solution
Hardin points out that the Tragedy of the Commons is an example of the class of problems with no technical solution, where:
A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.
We Must Change Our Values: Mutual Coercion
Therefore, any solution requires that we, as a society, change our values of morality. For example, we may decide that unlimited use of air is no longer morally acceptable. Hardin states one solution is “Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon.” We, as a society, agree that some actions are not allowed (the mutual agreement), and that violations of the agreement leads to fines or prison terms (the Coercion). Thus, we have some restrictions on what can be put into the air. The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates the amount of pollutants that can be released into the air. Failure to comply with the regulations leads to fines or prison sentences.
Hawaiian Islanders protected their environment and fisheries for a thousand years by a unique system of local ownership extending from the sea to the headwaters of streams feeding into the sea. Violations of the rules (taboos) could lead to the death penalty. This was “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon” in the extreme.
Hawai’ian islanders punishing a guilty person. Lithograph by Langlame: Maniere de punir de mort un coupable aux iles Sandwich. Published in the book by Jacques Etienne Victor Arago, Promenade autour du monde (pendant les annees de 1817, 1818, 1819 et 1820, sur les corvettes du Roi l’Uranie et la Physicienne, commandees par M. Freycinet.
From Grosvenor Prints Hampton, UK.
More General Solutions
In addition, morals or ethics can lead to changes in use of the resource. How can this be done? Ostrom et al (1999) provide a possible answer.
“Solving [commons] problems involves two distinct elements:
- Restricting access, and
- Creating incentives (usually by assigning individual rights to, or shares of, the resource) for users to invest in the resource instead of overexploiting it.
Both changes are needed. For example, access to the north Pacific halibut fishery was not restricted before the recent introduction of individual transferable quotas and catch limits protected the resource for decades. But the enormous competition to catch a large share of the resource before others did resulted in economic waste, danger to the fishers, and reduced quality of fish to consumers. Limiting access alone can fail if the resource users compete for shares, and the resource can become depleted unless incentives or regulations prevent overexploitation.”
From Ostrom et al (1999), “Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges.”
Restricting access ultimately involves limiting population, especially when the common being accesses is a global system.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to fail or Succeed, Viking.
Hardin, Garret. (1969) “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science. 162: 1243-8.
Hardin, G. (1998). “ESSAYS ON SCIENCE AND SOCIETY: Extensions of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 280 (5364): 682-683.
Ostrom, E., J. Burger, et al. (1999). Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges. Science 284 (5412): 278-282.