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Monday Muse v.1 n.12
December 28, 1999


My Dearest Gentlefolk,

This week, I would like to turn our minds back to December 13, 1968. Apollo 8 was on its way to the moon. The United States had just performed another of a series of open air nuclear tests in Nevada, and the Soviet Union was about to perform another of its own corresponding series at Semipalitinsk. China, not to be outdone, was preparing for its own nuclear test at Lop Nor. Israel was at war in Lebanon, and the United States was drafting young men for military service in Vietnam.

In the pages of the journal Science, Garrett Harding published an article ostensibly addressed to the growing problems of over population, pollution, and the arms race. The article had a profound effect on United Nations operations as well as U.S. foreign aid programs around the world. The core of Harding's argument was presented as follows:

The rebuttal to the invisible hand in population control is to be found in a scenario first sketched in a little-known Pamphlet in 1833 by a mathematical amateur named William Forster Lloyd (1794-1852). We may well call it 'the tragedy of the commons,' using the word 'tragedy' as the philosopher Whitehead used it: 'The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.' He 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.'

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, 'What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?' This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly + 1.

2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision making herdsman is only a fraction of - 1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit -- in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial. The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers. Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Science 1243, 1244-1245 (Dec. 13, 1968).

Harding's analysis may at first appear persuasive. After all, he uses the language of scientific rationalism as a gloss for our most profound modern ills, and in the process reads ethical choice out of the equation. It is not our vanity or insolence that has brought such plagues upon the earth as over population, famine, pollution, or the madness of a nuclear arms race. Rather, these ills are the result of our failure to appreciate the law of "reason" to which we are naturally subject. It is our natural impulses that drive us to consume the world, even if this consumption invites our own destruction.

The superficial attraction of such a position may lie in its ability to relieve us of blame. We simply did not know what we were doing. The depletion of ozone over the poles, global warming, and the world-wide decline in fish stocks were bound to happen.

Harding's prognosis is also attractive. We, the industrialized nations of the world, have already hit upon the answer: the eradication of the commons by division into private property, coupled with strict management of remaining "public" spaces. To save the world -- to save Africa from the African herdsman, to save the Steppe from the Asian horseman, to save the Jungle from the Amazonian Indian -- we need simply graft upon their world the property norms of our own. They need to be taught the rules of scarcity and rational exploitation. The Sioux warrior must surrender his feathered bonnet for the long black coat and top hat of the city. Put away your childish things, for now is the day to partition the earth and make war upon those who would run free upon it.

Perhaps I am too cynical. My antipathy, however, extends far beyond the potential consequences of adhering to Harding's view of the "tragedy". Harding begs some rather important questions. Does "social stability" also presume the elimination of the natural predators of the herd? Predators, such as wolves and big cats, are just one source of "friction" Harding does not include in his calculus. What shall he say of the danger of disease, or the prerequisites to good herd management and animal husbandry? I suspect that Harding mentions none of these because admitting any of them would demonstrate two things: first, he is not in fact speaking of pastoralists (the herdsmen); and second, his broadside assault on the commons must take as its starting point post-industrial man.

A herdsman will never be able to manage a large herd alone. So why speak of him in this way? If we allow the herdsman to have (or need) the assistance of others, the solipsistic rationality of Harding's dilemma begins to unwind. The addition of one animal to his herd will not automatically increase the herdsman's private utility by one, because a single individual will only be able to manage so many animals before they exceed his ability to adequately care for them.

Perhaps you will object that Harding's analysis is intended to be general, and by insisting on a more realistic appraisal of the herdsman's plight I am simply changing the model. Such an objection is not too far from the mark. Harding's model requires us to think of the herdsman in ways that betray the assumption that tribes function as clusters of isolated individuals, neither interested nor in need of each other's assistance. Why must we think of the herdsman in this way? Is it because we think that we live this way? The absurdity of such a postulate should not be underestimated.

Harding is only persuasive if we take as representative of the human condition some rather peculiar things. His analysis, in other words, turns on our understanding of social stability and social being, and not on our understanding of the "natural" disposition of a commons.

There was a time when the nomadic peoples of the world determined the course of history. That time has plainly past. Now, it is the landlord who wages war upon the nomad, and struggles to convince himself that it is the nomad who brings ruin upon the land. Harding gave voice to a tragedy, but a tragedy born of our own vanity and myopia. For the time being, we have collectively conquered the mortal adversaries of cold, hunger and disease. And in the hollow shadows of these fallen giants, our number has multiplied.

We have chosen to bring down the mysteries of a bare and simple existence. We have chosen to divide the land, and leave to each soul the liberty to do with her parcel as only she determines. We have chosen to build a world in which the highest virtue is found in serving our individual "self interest". We have chosen to "regulate" the traffic of individual preferences, rather than live a life known only through and by the care of our neighbor.

Now let us ask ourselves, have we chosen well?

David Robert Foss


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Message Author Date
Muse v.1 n.12 David Robert Foss 12/28/1999
Response 1 Theodore M. 12/28/1999
Response 2 David Robert Foss 12/28/1999

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