December 01, 2007

The tragedy of the commons does not teach what economists think it teaches.

Property held and tended in common will be individually abused, so long as human beings choose to see themselves primarily as individuals. This much is true: but its application to communally-held property is a special case, a specific symptom of a deeper cause, in much the same way that our perception of gravity results from our not having the full picture. The primary lesson the tragedy of the commons has to teach us is not that human beings will exploit individually what is held in common but why: and how this why brings about other effects outside a communal property context.

Ironically, a part of this relationship resides in the scarcity = value equation economists have known about for centuries.

In the specific case of the commons, the lands held in common were denuded as each person tried individually to draw out an individual maximum benefit, without regard (it seemed) to maintenance of a renewable resource. Traditionally this is explained as simple exploitation of a resource held in common; and no further explanations of actions need be sought. Yet even those who exploit come eventually to understand a need for sustaining a resource, especially when that resource directly constitutes personal survival and not an abstract commodity. This did not happen with the commons.

To me, the commons' reaction implies instead an initial perception of scarcity.

Yet in the specific case of the commons, the perception of scarcity had been a mirage -- until the reaction to scarcity itself brought about the reality. The renewable resource could have been sustainable indefinitely, even as the individually-owned lands were. What was different was that perceived scarcity: which threw away any consideration other than maximising immediate/short-term personal benefit.

The reaction is an understandable one. When key resources are in short supply and individual benefit is primary, human beings tend to do everything within their power to secure for themselves not only their own share, but as much as they can of the whole. This tendency leads to one of two results: hoarding, or a growth in consumption to fill the new level of available resources. Both results work to further reinforce the perception of scarcity, both among "haves" and "have-nots".

It is also well-known that the perception of scarcity often evokes reaction precisely as though there had been true scarcity: which itself can then bring about the scarcity which had not originally existed. Runs on banks are classic examples.

Which brings us to the core question: what caused this illusion of scarcity to arise in the first place?

I propose that whenever an individual or society has become dependent upon a specific resource, any part of that resource over which that human being or society does not have utter control is inflated in the perception of that human being or society: often to the point that the percentage of key resources which is controlled decreases in perception to scarcity levels -- whether or not this is actually the case. This change in perception, in turn, evokes classic reactions to scarcity, within the individual's or society's means.

As economies, technologies, and all other manner of curves appear to be speeding up in recent decades, the perception of scarcity also takes on a temporal component. Resentment grows against those before us, who are increasingly seen as having already consumed more than their fair share of resources. The only "logical" response is to ourselves consume all we can, to ensure that we get our "fair" share of resources --

Being of sound mind, I spent my money before I died

-- and try our damndest to spend them in our turn. In fact, abstract future generations increasingly count against that perception of scarcity: in that having to lay aside sustainability levels of resources for them deprives us of total control.

All of this is utterly dependent upon neither the vast majority of individual human beings nor countries currently finding it desirable to think outside its own individual best interest. (See the Prisoner's Dilemma.)

In this expression of common underlying principles we find not only peak oil but also an explanation for why resources continually evoke battlefields; why rapidly developing economies such as China's see no reason to restrain themselves against a possible threat of human-caused global warming; even why there is so determined and consistent opposition to every hint that global warming might possibly have a human cause. In this context, it makes utter sense that the greater the warnings, the more frequent and more extreme the behaviour that helps to precipitate/accelerate/bring about a real reason for those warnings. Whether or not the scale has tipped, the idea has been planted that it could be tipping -- in which case it behooves us to grab everything we can for ourselves before the balance empties altogether.

In the tragedy of the commons, those who helped bring it about were unable to escape the cycle by themselves: powerful third-party intervention was required to restore the land, which also happened to result in its loss to its original, common owners.

Can we do better?

thank you for taking the time to break it down!
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