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Damaging shared environmental resources: the Tragedy of the Commons

True environmental costs are not factored in to the price we pay

The true environmental costs of our industrial way of life are not incorporated in the price we pay for our lifestyle. What is that cost? The depletion of environmental resources we rely on to support that lifestyle, and the degradation of those parts of the environment we use to dispose of our waste ('sinks'). This was recognised in a famous 1968 essay by the biologist Garrett Hardin called The Tragedy of the Commons: "Property held in common by many people will be destroyed or at least overused until it deteriorates".

The example Hardin uses is a community's common land, where villagers graze their cattle. Each cow added by a herdsman to this pasture will benefit the owner, but it is the community as a whole which bears the cost (the degradation of the land). Because the benefit of adding another cow goes to the individual and the cost of overgrazing is paid by the community, the “rational” choice of each herdsman is to add cows. Those who recognise the problem and show restraint by grazing fewer cows obtain fewer benefits while the land itself deteriorates anyway because of the individuals who continue to add cows. The commons thus rewards behaviours that lead to deterioration, such as overgrazing, and punishes individuals who show restraint. This concept was known by Aristotle: "What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it".

The logical conclusions of this are depressing: commonly held resources will become depleted through excessive consumption, and commonly held environmental sinks will be overwhelmed by pollution. Much of the environment is a commons for us, either by taking resources from it, or using it to dump our waste. So, if you are an industrial company it makes sense for you to pollute the environment (i.e. to use it as a sink) because it is cheaper than cleaning up your industrial practices, and it’s not your shareholders that pay the price of the polluted environment. Instead, society pays the cost of poorer air quality, global warming, acid rain, and ozone depletion.

It makes sense to overfish, because if you don’t someone else will, and the fish stocks will plummet anyway, but at least if you overfish you make some money out of it. The price of course is extinction of species and less biodiversity. Using rainforest as a common resource also results in a reduction in biodiversity.

The logical corollary of there being no need to treat the environment as a cost, means it will continue to degrade. So, what's the solution? Some have used Hardin's ideas to argue that private ownership of resources and sinks is the way forward. Many more, myself included, argue that the environmental costs must be factored in to the price we pay for goods. Or at the very least, a recognition of the value that ecological services contribute to our economy. But that's a subject for another post.

This is just one of the stories from my environmental talks

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