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Tragedy of the commons

How relevant is this today?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Tragedy of the commons

How relevant is this today?

By Jennifer Stern

, |

5 min read

The tragedy of the commons is an economic principle first described by Oxford University political economist William Forster Lloyd in 1832. Lloyd based his study on the use of common grazing land, but the principle holds for the exploitation (and overexploitation) of many different resources, and the tragedy is still compounding itself today.

How the tragedy unfolds

Lloyd’s original article outlined how, if villagers were allowed to graze their animals on communal land (a ‘commons’), they would look after only their own interests, fail to consider the needs of their neighbours, and would put everyone at risk. The principle is simple. Say the commons in question can support 100 cows, and there are ten villagers, each with 10 cows. No problem. But what if one villager gets some extra cows? Now there is not quite enough grazing to go around, and eventually the field becomes overgrazed, all the cows die, and the villagers go hungry. But before that happens, the one greedy person benefits – at the expense of the others. And the next stage of the tragedy is that one, two or more other villagers realise that the first greedy one is benefiting at their expense, so they also get extra cows, which accelerates the process of overgrazing – and exacerbates and perpetuates the problem of inequity.

But that’s all just theory

This is all just theory, you may think. We live in a rational world where people don’t behave like that. Hmm – remember 2017? Remember the looming spectre of Day Zero? Why and how did that happen, and how was it averted? Well, it happened because water was cheap and ubiquitous – at least until it wasn’t. It was a commons. So it didn’t really matter if you used more, had a green lawn and a sparkling pool, and took long, hot showers every night. The water would still come pouring out of the taps like it always did. But, no. In 2017 the tragedy of the commons caught up with us.

The tragic implications of the tragedy

A theory is just a theory, but when it is used to justify political strategy or social engineering, it can get quite ugly. The tragedy of the commons (ToC) has been used to justify many injustices, most notably by American academic Garrett Hardin, who argued that the world’s resources are finite, but that they need to be divided up between an ever-increasing population. Taken to its inevitable conclusion, Hardin’s argument is that, to prevent the tragedy of the commons, poor people should be allowed to starve to death because that would ‘teach them’ (or at least the surviving ones) to manage their resources better. (Of course, while all this was happening, these countries would still export food – and non-food crops that were grown by foreign multinationals in place of food – to the rich countries, but that’s another whole story.)

Blaming the victim

And it gets worse. I overheard someone in 2017 saying, ‘it’s those people in the townships who waste water,’ referring, I suspect, to the inevitable spillage from the buckets used to carry water from the standpipes. At the other end of the scale, also at the height of Cape Town’s drought, a Constantia resident was selling water from the stream that runs past his property – mostly to people to fill up their swimming pools. His accomplice, who transported the water, was quoted as saying he believes he ‘is doing a good service to the community’ because the water would otherwise ‘just go to waste’.

This attitude is a perfect example of the ToC and, to a certain extent, Hardin’s lifeboat ethics. What Hardin failed to realise, though, is that the ToC is caused not by those starving because the field is overgrazed, or those drowning because they are not invited into the lifeboat, but by the greedy pastoralists who overstock the common, and the complacent lifeboat passengers who stretch out comfortably, denying the swimmers a seat. It’s the classic case of blaming the victim – a popular strategy for proponents of the highly flawed principle of social Darwinism, and the almost universally discredited ‘might is right’ doctrine.

How big is the commons?

The other problem with the ToC is that different people have different opinions about what is common, and what is not. The classic example here is, again, water. During Cape Town’s drought (and no doubt during the Eastern Cape’s drought, and all the other pending ones) people tend to focus on municipal water – because that is what they are being billed for. So, for example, when you use more than your ‘fair share’, you end up paying more for it. For some people, that’s not really an issue, as they have plenty of money, so this model suggests that they are allowed to use plenty of water.

But it gets even more complicated. At the height of Cape Town’s drought, for example, it was difficult for municipalities to control and limit the use of ground water. People would gaily say, ‘it’s okay, it’s borehole water,’ believing that this meant it was somehow magically not part of the water that needed to be rationed. It was ‘free’, and it came out of the ground in their garden, so they were entitled to it.

But water, as water strategist Anthony Turton explains, ‘is not a stock but a flux; it is both finite and infinite.’ What this means is that all water – whether from a stream, a borehole, or from the municipality in your taps – is part of the same resource. And groundwater is part of that flux. Groundwater is a renewable resource – in the same way that water in a river is a renewable resource. It’s renewable only if it is extracted at a rate that matches its replenishment. So, if everyone decides they are going to use borehole water instead of municipal water, there is a very real chance that groundwater reserves will be depleted – a classic ToC problem. And, like all ToC problems, it is caused by those who obtain unfair benefit, and who may well survive long term because of the advantage they have built up, and the victims are those who have not overutilised the resource.

Practical implications of the tragedy of the commons

So what does all this mean in terms of day-to-day living? Well, as resident or manager of an estate, you may have all kinds of commons – parking, peace and quiet, dog poo-free public space, flowerbeds. It’s unlikely to be a problem if, for example, one or two residents pick flowers from communal gardens to put in a vase in their homes. But what if their neighbours think: ‘If they can, so can I’? You can see where this is heading.

In fact, managing an estate is largely about managing commons. Some commons, such as the flowers and parking spaces, are obvious. But some are less obvious, such as freedom from pollution – light pollution, noise pollution, smoke pollution, litter, and more. It’s a delicate balance, because living in an estate is all about community, and community is all about managing commons.

But don’t let the pessimism of Lloyd, and the racist elitism of Hardin, get you down. The 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to (the now late) Elinor Ostrom for her research showing how communities can and do successfully manage common property. This is probably not news to managers of successful estates, who have been doing this for years, but we’ve had enough bad news, so it’s nice to see this kind of thinking acknowledged and rewarded.

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