The Tragedy of the Commons: what Garrett Hardin got right, and what he missed

What follows is more detail on why  The Tragedy is such a devastating problem, and how the evolution of co-operation including how the basic income can help, why privatization has become an understandable distraction, and refutation of the ‘rats’ hypothesis on Easter Island.

All Hardin advises in the above link is “Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” Neither privatization nor capitalism played any part in the Easter Island catastrophe.

A precarious, almost unanimous agreement was reached at the ‘Paris’ Agreement in December 2015, but the 2017 Trump administration in the USA appears to threaten that (near) unanimity.

At first sight, the ‘Tragedy’ is contradicted by the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’

http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/PRISDIL.html

Robert Axelrod goes into more detail in his book The Evolution of Co-operation

http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Evolution_of_Cooperation.html?id=KFf2HXzVO58C

The example given is of two individuals who will gain marginally if they can trust each other, but each will gain more if the other keeps her/his word, and they renege. Axelrod shows that if the two individuals expect to meet in future, then co-operation is the best strategy, hence the evolution of co-operation.

But what if there are hundreds of individuals, who must all trust each other? If anyone thinks that what happened on Rapanui (Easter Island) is not relevant for us, the real life situation for the Easter Islanders was the same as it is now globally: a large number of separate individuals or groups must all be able to trust each other to stop destroying the ecosphere due to our competitive, consumerist culture. The Easter Islanders failed this test dismally.

Globally the problem is far worse than on Rapanui, where there were only 11 separate clans. All independent nation states, and countless private companies, many of whom have been successful due to their aggressive methods, must unanimously show restraint in the face of ecological limits. A minority who continue to ignore or deny limits, or renege on agreements to observe limits gain a competitive advantage at the expense of the rest – in the short term –  and  are therefore in a stronger position when the inevitable crunch comes.

Up to date examples could include the aggressive privatization of water by Nestlé., but neither hydraulic fracturing nor fishing involve privatizing formerly common resources.

The Tragedy is not limited to open access. The same principle applies to over-production of steel, or cars, or fracking, as limits are approached. The first to cease production merely weakens their economic strength in the here and now.

The validity of the ’Tragedy’ in an expanding culture as forcibly illustrated on Rapanui remains. For five centuries the Easter Islanders could take room for expansion for granted. Even there, by the time Captain Cook took an interpreter in 1774 the hungry and impoverished descendants of their desperate, and hence briefly cannibal ancestors were beginning to develop strategies that Ostrom and Shiva would recognize. They and Axelrod are right – but not in the short term.

The crisis  in Venezuela is an unintended instance of the Tragedy.  Due to mismanagement, oil is being kept in the ground, but unilaterally. (That is not necessarily proof of what any socialist governments would do.)

Some claim that the fate of Easter Island was caused by rats. Here is Jared Diamond’s own response to that theory, but even if this hypothesis is correct it is still an example of an invasive species taking temporary but catastrophic advantage of the ability to expand.

But we can no more stop economic growth before it is too late than the Easter Islanders could stop felling trees. Or can we? I am indebted to Richard Wilkinson for a proposal more specific than ’mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’, based on actual precedents:

“The more equitable the system for the distribution of necessities, the greater the identity of interest within the society when faced by ecological problems.”

The book from which this unwitting advocacy of the universal, unconditional Basic (Citizens’) Income, the main thrust of this weblog, is taken predates internet links: Wilkinson, Richard G. (1973) Poverty and Progress Methuen, London, p48.

What Elinor Ostrom and Vandana Shiva illustrate will become the norm, but their in due course valuable contributions are currently doing more harm than good if they are used to play down the seriousness of the threat posed by the ‘Tragedy‘. The End of the World as we know it need not be at hand, but on current trends, it is.

 

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