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Tragedy of the Global Commons

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Garrett Hardin: The tragedy of the commons. Science 162: 1243-1248. (1968)

When Garrett Hardin first wrote about this subject he realised that altruism was an important factor when using a commonly shared resource. If every user only took a little, allowing the resource time to regrow, then there would always be enough for everyone (i.e. sustainable use). Unfortunately this is rarely the case. People tend to grab enough to meet their own needs, and then, perhaps, to think of the requirements of others. When everyone has this same attitude it is little wonder that species are rapidly declining and their habitats disappearing.

The idea of ‘commons’ is very old. Sometimes this has been successful. In feudal Britain one approach was to divide fields into strips, and then allocate the strips to everyone in the community. The more important you were, the more land you had a right to. Vassals and serfs might have use of land, even if it was owned by their liege. Another important factor from those days was that some fields would be left fallow: they had a chance to recover before being planted again. Some pastures and woods were for general use. Feudalism was not so beneficial in Europe, because much more of the land was taken by the wealthy and powerful, with the poor having a very miserable existence: this is still evident in many countries today.

The next stage set the scene for the long decline to where we find ourselves today. Landowners and magnates took control of land and denied its use to the peasants and other dwellers. Infringements were punished, often severely, and the lower strata of society ~ if they were even considered to be members of society ~ were denied use of natural resources. Imagine having your house burned down just because you collected a few twigs from the forest to cook your food, or your child was hung because he caught a rabbit that ‘belonged’ to the local nobleman? People were then forcibly excluded from the land (Enclosure Acts and Clearances). The very name ‘Commoner’ derives from those people that lived upon the commons: they had the right to graze their animals on the meadows and in woods. Clearances denied them these rights. An example where traditional usage remains is in England’s New Forest The exclusion story played out elsewhere too. In Texas the introduction of barbed wire resulted in huge areas of land being fenced off. This caused problems for the free-ranging cattle and wild horses, and, crucially, limited access to already scarce water supplies. Cowboys driving cattle to northern markets started to cut the fences, the landowners retaliated, and murder was commonplace.

Countries that had a monarchy saw large estates taken for the sole use of a ruler and his friends; and these ‘Royal Estates’ became the patrimony of the aristocracy. As these same people governed the nations, they conveniently legislated to keep land and resources in their own hands. One trick was to declare that only landowners could be elected into parliament. The poor, and shopkeepers for a time, were denied having any say in their own lives. It didn’t stop there, because a lack of resources or a growing population often meant that one country went to war with a neighbour to grab their land and steal resources. We see this today with the USA occupying the Middle East and trying to destabilise various elected governments (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya too) in order to steal the oil and natural gas deposits.

The final stage of this destructive pattern arose with business communities. No longer necessary to take resources for food or basic life support, the future lay in making a profit. Buying and selling things whether you needed them or not. The perpetual need for economic growth, in a finite world, is now causing many species to crash; largely by removing their habitats, which are also sold. Once again those in power have legislated for their own benefits and greed, greasing the palms of the corporate world with minimal taxes and lack of oversight, whilst denying equity and equality to the masses. Inequality in the wealthiest countries is now profound: Great Britain for instance is now controlled by less than 1% of its populace, leaving the other 99% heavily indebted and struggling to survive (food banks, low-wage jobs, high energy prices, poor health etc.). We’ve been here before too: Victorian workhouses and Poor Laws; and of course the French Revolution. In December 2014 Westminster’s government is attempting to permit house-building on publicly-owned land; it wants to grab what belongs to others ‘in common’ and then sell this free resource back to us. London’s pretext is that there is a housing crisis. There isn’t, as there are thousands of empty houses throughout the three countries ~ but just not in those places where the politicians want the money to go. So that is how not to do it.

Marine environment and the high seas

In the past maritime countries often had jurisdiction over sea areas extending 3-12 nautical miles (nm) from their shores. As the USA tried to establish its global business hegemony it proclaimed control beyond normal territorial waters (28th Sept. 1945). Chile and Peru claimed maritime areas extending out to 200 nm in 1947. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) was the first to adopt an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nm. This convention (UNCLOS) was open to membership, but not binding. Where two maritime countries were less than 200 nm apart, the distance was divided, usually equally, between the EEZs. Areas outside any national EEZ were declared the High Seas, belonging to all and none. So we now have a global marine commons and the tragedy is playing out all over again. Fisheries are one of the biggest causes of ocean degradation, ruthlessly plundering stocks with no regard for sustainable use. Professor Callum Roberts clearly shows the trail of disaster in his book: Unnatural History of the Sea (2007, Gaia). Migratory fishes were not included in the Bonn Convention (1979) on Migratory Species. In an attempt to halt plundering of the High Seas, several island nations are now declaring large Marine Protected Areas, but these are probably too little and too late. Small nations rely on selling licences for the industrialised countries to plunder their natural resources, as a substantial contribution to national income. It seems we are unable to learn anything about sensible, thoughtful, sustainable use until there is nothing left to sustain. Altruism does not fit with profit-driven growth.

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