Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Tragedy of the Commons

I want to call your attention to the website of the Natural Resources Defense Council - particularly to an article entitled, "THE CLIMATE CHANGE GAME". Here's how it gets started:

As another year begins without any significant progress toward containing global warming, I find myself wondering if this isn't the perfect real-life example of the Tragedy of the Commons.

In the parable, as told by the ecologist Garret Hardin in his influential 1968 essay of the same name, herders sharing free use of a pasture invariably end up destroying it. Each finds that it pays to increase his or her herd as much as possible because s/he will get the full benefit of the additional animals, while bearing only a fraction of the cost of overgrazing, which is shared by all. Eventually, as each herder reaches the same conclusion, and continues to add animals, the pasture is ruined.

The reason the outcome is inevitable is that it is in the herders' rational self-interest to do what they do. It doesn't matter if one or two far-sighted herders refrain from acquiring additional animals. The others will only pick up the slack, so to speak, and the pasture will still be destroyed, though possibly over a longer period of time.

Of course, in real life, the outcome is open, not inevitable, because people can manage the pasture through rules or payment schemes. The challenge is coming up with an effective system and getting enough herders to agree to it. Hardin called the solution "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon."

In addition to resource exploitation, the parable also applies to pollution. In the pollution scenario, instead of withdrawing resources from the commons, the rational company discharges harmful things into it. Again, this happens because the benefit (cheap disposal of wastes) goes all to the polluter, while the cost (fouled air or water) is shared by all.

Now, if instead of companies, we think in terms of countries, we have a pretty good explanation for the current impasse in international efforts to deal with global warming. The United States and China are the herders who insist on acting in their own rational self-interest. As long as they stick to their guns, there's nothing other countries can do. Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon, is impossible because the United States and China don't agree and are too strong to be coerced. That leaves other countries with the voluntary self-restraint option, which can slow the process, but not change the outcome -- or can it?

The author then talks about the possibility of cooperation being in everybody's self-interest by analyzing the situation using game theory. It's an interesting approach and if you have time, click through and read it all. In the meantime, I truly believe that slowing the progress of global warming is worth it. Everytime I choose not to make an unnecessary trip in the car I'm helping. Everytime I turn out the lights or recycle my newspapers I'm helping.

While you're on the NRDC website, go to the action page and engage in email activism. It's quick and easy and it does make a difference. If thousands of emails pour in on a given issue, you bet politicians take notice.

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