I believe the tragedy of the commons provides a context for understanding the world’s problems, and this concept has shaped my career as an environmentalist.
The first time I heard the term I was a gradate student living in a group house with three other students and two dogs. One day when the house was at its messiest, my housemate declared: “This, my friends, is the tragedy of the commons.” As I heard him say this, I had no idea that this concept would help to shape my life.
I later learned that the economist Garret Hardin described it something like this: People will sacrifice something that’s common, or shared by everyone (like a neat house) when they can gain something uniquely for themselves (such as time to do something other than clean up their mess.) I hadn’t cleaned our house because I chose to go kayaking, to work on my thesis, or to do just about anything that furthered my own goals, instead of doing something that was good for everyone. The underlying reason for this, Hardin might argue, is that the costs of the messy house were shared, while the benefits of inaction were privately held. (Just for the record, my housemates were thinking the same thing!)
The tragedy of the commons occurs anytime someone makes a private profit by pushing costs onto others. Hardin uses an example in which farmers shared a cattle-grazing field. Each time one farmer added another cow, the others suffered a slight loss since the quality of the pasture declined. But the farmer who had more cows could make more profit. While this could ultimately destroy the pasture, some farmers would think only of themselves and not about the common good.
As a professional environmentalist, I view my work entirely in this paradigm. For example, if a manufacturer can avoid the costs of a pollution control device, and instead release toxic chemicals into our air or water, the tragedy of the commons is at work. The costs have been pushed off onto society as a whole, so everyone loses, but the manufacturer realizes the profit alone. Harvesting national forests, dynamiting mountaintops for mining, filling wetlands, over-fishing the oceans, contaminating land, air and water, and other environmental insults all follow the same pattern.
In 1994 a friend was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 35. Besides normal grief, I also felt very angry that some of the carcinogens in our air, water and food came from a trade-off between common costs and private profit. I saw my friend’s death as a cost externalized to her so someone else could profit.
So the tragedy of the commons is a lot more than the mess in our group house. I came to believe that we need strong environmental laws and regulations to protect the commons and this is what motivates my work. By defending and improving our environmental laws, I believe we can minimize the extent to which everybody pays the costs of private profit.
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