Jul 2008

The Tragedy of The Tragedy of The Commons

George Monbiot has written an excellent piece in The Guardian about the unsustainable nature of the modern fishing industry and the destruction it is wreaking on our oceans (Trawlermen cling on as oceans empty of fish – and the ecosystem is gasping).

The comments that follow the article are fairly predictable and fall into two broad categories. The first — and largest group — expressing their agreement with Monbiot and adding their voice to a collective lament about the stupidity of humanity. The second, smaller group, grudgingly admitting that Monbiot has a point (his article largely states obvious truths and refrains from making too many value judgments of the kind that provoke the typical Monbiot-backlash) but bringing up “the tragedy of the commons” to nip in the bud any notion that the reason for this ecological destruction might be free markets, capitalism or the profit motive. In fact, they reason, it’s only happening because we’re not capitalist enough!

The argument is a simple one. Because the fishermen don’t own the oceans, they have no incentive to take care of it. The answer, therefore, is to privatise it. So long as it’s just some indefineable collective thing… “nature”, for want of a better word… people have no interest in protecting it. As soon as it is turned into property, on the other hand, it becomes important enough for the owners to preserve.

Tim Worstall‘s comment sums this position up succinctly:

Yes, it’s the Tragedy of the Commons and as Garrett Hardin pointed out the only way to solve it is to apportion property rights. We can see that the bureaucratic apportionment of quotas doesn’t work for public choice reasons. We thus need to move to the alternative system, direct ownership for the long term of the fishing rights by the fishermen.

I’ve gone over that comment maybe half a dozen times, and I state without exaggeration that it is one of the most depressing statements I’ve ever read. Partly because of the sentiment it expresses and the profound disrespect for nature as a thing in itself that it accepts without resistance — indeed appears to embrace — but mostly because it may well be true. At least in the context of modern civilisation.

To me, the real tragedy of the commons is that we have come to think in such terms.

Unlike almost every other human culture that has ever existed (unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the few exceptions are the “civilised” or “city-building” cultures), we no longer have a sane relationship with nature. The Hopi people didn’t need to apportion property rights to know it was a bad idea to shit in the stream they drank from. There was a basic but very deep understanding that nature — the environment — was a large system of which they were merely a part. This leads to the, I would have thought, blindlingly obvious conclusion that any activity which is clearly destructive to the larger system, is almost inevitably going to be destructive to the culture… the people… the person carrying out the destructive act. And this is the case even if the impact is not immediately apparent. With cities (or perhaps it was large-scale agriculture, it’s hard to know) came the tendency to see a separation between humanity and nature.

To me this represents nothing less than a collective psychosis. A “psychotic break” in as literal a sense as that term could ever be used.

A simple analogy

It’s not at all difficult to follow. Just as an individual human being is part of a wider system (society), so our culture is part of a wider system (the environment*).

Now, imagine an individual who suffers from a delusion which convinces him or her that they are not part of society; that they exist separate and distinct from it; and in fact, it exists simply to satisfy their demands. This belief is so strong that they view and treat all of society, including the very people themselves, as personal property to be exploited as they see fit and without regard for any consequences to that society.

Such a person may well treat others acceptably because they do not wish to damage their property, but this isn’t an indication that they’re not psychotic. And nor is it a guarantee that they won’t cause a considerable amount of suffering with their actions if given free rein. I would certainly question the wisdom of anyone who felt the best thing for all concerned would be to provide them with the tools to act out their delusion and treat society as personal property.

Furthermore, such a person is almost certainly not well-qualified to judge the amount of damage they are doing and, therefore, cannot even be trusted to know when they have begun to threaten their own survival. Self-destructive behaviour is hardly unknown amongst those experiencing psychosis.

A way out?

I’m pretty much convinced that we’ve passed the point where we can simply “reinject” some sense of reality into modern civilisation — at least within the required timespans. Relearning an appreciation of nature as part of us, and of us as part of nature, probably can’t be done quickly enough.

On the other hand, we have actually developed a system, imperfect though it is, which allows us to regulate our collective behaviour with a degree of success… the law. See, when Tim Worstall insists that “the only way to solve” this problem is to apportion property rights, he is clearly mistaken. It would be theoretically possible to declare the oceans to be… oh, I dunno, a Vital Element of Our Survivial? (VEOS? Someone can come up with a better term). A sustainable fishing strategy would be developed (erring always on the sustainable side) and society would employ fishermen to carry it out.

And when Tim speaks of “public choice” being the primary reason why such a strategy might fail, then he may, in practice, be right. But it is clear to me that it’s wrong to allow a psychotic individual to seriously harm themself out of respect for their choice. We understand that there is a high enough probablility that they aren’t currently capable of sound judgment, to warrant intervention out of concern for their well-being.

Likewise, if the public demand fish at an unsustainable rate, then we’re not acting in sound (collective) mind. We need to make it clear to everyone that demanding resources at an unsustainable rate represents a collective madness. We need to make it clear that insofar as morality is linked with the prevention of human suffering, such demands are deeply immoral. We need to make it clear that while such ways of thinking may well be ingrained, we can no longer allow them to dictate our behaviour in the world. We need to ensure that everyone knows new rules — a kind of imposed collective super-ego, if you will — are now required to govern our interaction with the environment.

And yes, those found acting outside the rules would be viewed and treated the same way we would treat anyone who seeks to endanger the survival of millions.

* I say “environment” as opposed to “nature” because I include other contemporary human cultures in that system

Posted in: Opinion