January 12, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

Ruin in the Commons

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.

The above line, from Garrett Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons, was laid out by way of a prologue to the thesis he explored, beginning with the following example. If all farmers could graze their cattle on pastoral land without paying for the privilege, each would then be tempted to add more animals to his herd, therefrom to profit. Although this additional animal also increases the threat of overgrazing, this downside is shared by all who use the land, not borne exclusively by the individual farmer exploiting it for his gain. This imbalance between solely acquired benefits and distributed costs exacerbates the pastures.

Freedom in the commons thus brings ruin to all, Hardin observed.

Further in the article, Hardin went on to outline the danger in fairly lay terms, and many of the ideas are clearly sensible. In a world of finite resources, consumption cannot grow indefinitely. If atomic energy takes hold widely, then problem shifts from being one of generation to one of dissipation, posing just as wide a threat. The legislation of temperance is crucial to averting tragedy. The freedom to breed without penalty, as recognized in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, is dangerous when coupled with free access to the commons. Mutually agreed upon and enforced coercion is necessary, much like taxes in a free society. And critically, the thrust of technology must be to lower the cost of compliance with the public good below that of intruding upon the commons in an unsustainable manner.

Not all of Hardin's urging is well-looked upon; two especially contentious issues relate to population growth and morality. Despite the environmental costs attendant to large populations, many find repugnant the notion of limited reproductive rights, with penalties imposed for high rates of fertility. Also troubling is Hardin's observation that the morality of our actions themselves must be judged by the potential for negative or positive impact, for there is a world of difference between the frontiersman relieving himself in the Australian outback and the urban dweller doing likewise on Sydney's main thoroughfare.

But above the contentious and the accepted parts, Hardin seemed to suggest that to the degree that what is required is a willingness to protect the common spaces, humans must adopt and enshrine values that over-ride our inherent tendency to abuse them for individual profit. The air and water we share, being bereft of the fences that define property rights, are especially needy of this adjustment. Administrative laws and their enforcement must be sufficiently detailed and powerful to ensure this.

Alas, the record of our acceptance of this notion is far from exemplary, or even satisfactory; instead we have embraced the very disavowal of the maxims behind such concern. True, every so often, we are witness to another round of international discussions about the changing climate of the planet we inhabit. At Montreal, in Kyoto, and more recently at the Hague, in the Netherlands. Nonetheless, the processes that contribute to these round-table discussions -- industrialization, the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources, growing consumption, boundless population growth, etc. -- typically wear on inexorably, and it is only at the various summits that they even appear to punctuate our lives. Global leaders gather together, toss about ideas on warding off potential ecological doom, and make grand promises to restore order to a world rapidly spinning away from the natural order. Actually, nothing of that sort transpires.

Among atmospheric scientists, several arguments have been settled to satisfaction -- that global warming is real, that some of it must be the result of human behavior, and that the potential for catastrophic changes in climate cannot be ruled out. The overwhelming evidence points to the reasonableness of this view. Yet, there are those who aver that the relationship between observed climate change and human behavior is not fully established, and that much of the change we now observe is just as likely to have resulted from natural variability in climate. Notwithstanding the unworthiness of that view, even natural changes, if extensive and rapid, would further terribly expose our fragile agricultural systems, by now already producing less food per capita since a peak in the mid-1980s.

Whither India in all this? The apparent absence of Indian voices at international fora to meet this challenge is not merely troubling in the usual sense we have become accustomed to. This time, the risk is far greater.

Our nation of a billion people, home to a fifth of humanity and counting among the ten largest economies in the world, is reduced to spectatorship in the process of deciding the very fate of the planet. Yes, this is the sort of irrelevance in which we routinely find ourselves. Disarmament? Global trade? Terrorism? In India, one can be forgiven thinking that these are issues for another species, for our views on these important matters are rarely sought, and even less regarded. In per capita terms, the irrelevance of India is staggering.

The economics of thwarting catastrophic climate change has locked nations into an unwitting stance, where all-round cooperation is the only acceptable outcome. Countries simply cannot afford the moral high ground of preserving the environment by unilateral cutbacks on their emissions. The much-touted free market has not demonstrated a meaningful ability to reward prudence over the pursuit of immediate profit, and this is the chief stumbling block. Were we to scale back our emissions or even invest heavily in newer and better energy production technologies, others who continue down the current path of exploitation simply reap the benefits of lower costs from proven technologies.

Even that might be a tolerable pill to swallow, if we could, in the long run, obtain the benefits of the newer technologies we invest in, and avoid the dangerous outcomes of misbehavior on the part of rogue states. But nature doesn't recognize the boundaries that separate our physical lives, and emissions in St Louis will do just as well to add to the carbon loading as those in Vladivostok or Chembur. This externalization of the costs of exploitation, while the benefits of prudence remain distant, is a powerful deterrent to common sense among the talking heads at the sundry conferences. Nationhood and self-interest merely send along to these discussions the voices clamoring for particular protections for each.

This status-quo threatens our hopes for prosperity. It is at great risk that we anticipate a transition from poverty to relative wealth without bringing a significant voice to environmental discussions. For the promise of impending affluence -- so easily imagined in the boardrooms of our dot-coms and newly resurgent manufacturing, retailing and other industries, hinges on the ability to compete with the developed world without raising the specter of environmental catastrophe or unacceptable unemployment levels. In a decade of liberalization and openness to the rest of the world, our leaders have promised much to many, their ability to deliver will necessarily run into the brick wall of unacceptable industrial activity, unless we can engineer acceptable alternative paths to shedding our underdeveloped status.

Not everyone in our society can have the household appliances that render physical labor a thing of the past, for we do not possess the energy to that end. Many will have no access to potable water for the imaginable future, for our ability to harness the plentiful rain is limited by woeful technology. Millions will continue to suffer from illnesses readily preventable elsewhere, for our pharmaceuticals only replicate, and do not create medicine. In simple terms, ridding ourselves of these and other shackles requires energy, technology, and consumption, all of which is simply unsustainable along current use patterns. We must either develop the necessary technologies for such change quickly, or negotiate to acquire them from those who possess it. Without a coherent and firm voice in the many summits around us, this transition simply will not happen.

The inertia of colluding and incompetent authorities serves no public interest, nor even their greed sufficiently to reward their own children! In authoritarian and representative governments alike, the decision makers have come to view their privileged status as adequate to guard them from the ravages the minions endure. The Tragedy of the Commons is that Garrett Hardin's postulation of it in Science magazine 32 years ago, could be re-published today, with only the slightest indication that over three decades have since elapsed. And the most ardent statement of its warning remains as true.

Freedom in the commons has wrought much ruin, and threatens more.

Ashwin Mahesh

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