Attending to the Whole: Addressing the Tragedy of the Commons

By Madronna Holden

Garret Hardin’s much cited essay, “Tragedy of the Commons”, asserts that as humans maximize their individual self-interest, they inevitably destroy the natural commons that sustains them.  Hardin used the theoretical example of a pasture, assuming individual grazers would more strongly weight the benefits to themselves in grazing more sheep as against the benefits to the commons in holding back — thus overgrazing their land to destruction.

If Hardin had used real history instead of his postulated example,  he might have revised his assumption about the inevitable destruction of human resources shared in common. In traditionally shared commons, many cultures characteristically  monitor and self-regulate their activity to protect their subsistence base, as in the case of Mongolian horse pasture  and tribal fisheries in the indigenous Pacific Northwest. The latter are two examples pointed out by three distinguished professors in the fields of agribusiness, ecology and property law in their essay, “Tragedy of Ecosystem Services”.

Humans have not always been so stupid as to destroy the natural commons that sustains them —given that they both recognize it as their means of survival and have the power to regulate it as a community.  On the other hand, humans who don’t have knowledge of the results of their actions on the commons may act so as to undermine its survival– and their own. Jared Diamond illustrates such cases of ecological failure in his book, Collapse.

But given good information and the power to implement community choices accordingly, humans have designed subsistence arrangements sustainable for hundreds or thousands of years—as did the terrace-farmers in New Guinea with which Diamond had firsthand experience.

Today, the “tragedy of the commons” results from the intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition – in which one person’s gain becomes another’s loss.  What began the massive post-industrial erosion of the commons in Europe were the seventeenth century enclosure and land privatization laws, creating scarcity for small grazers and setting them in competition with one another.  At the same time that this policy filled the coffers of a few, it took away the power of the community to recognize their common interests and care for their lands together.

Enclosure laws, purported to “protect” local farmers, actually drove them off their land, as it did the James family, whose members came to the US after they lost their own land as a result.  It was a memory so potent as to be passed through several generations — and communicated to me when I interviewed James family members on Grand Mound Prairie, Washington, over two hundred years later.

The tragedy of the commons derives not from human nature –or a human presence on the land which is inevitably destructive– but from systems that work against doing the right thing, ecologically speaking–by obscuring knowledge of the importance of natural systems to our survival, for instance.

Or by creating an economic system that robs individuals of ecologically sound alternatives.  In response to the essay  on “partnering with the natural world”  on this site, Darcy Myers gives the example of a woman in Haiti who recognizes the destructive ecological consequences of her actions, but cannot survive by doing otherwise.

I once asked a group of dislocated workers (former loggers) in a class I taught how many would support clear cutting if they were given an economic alternative.  If they saw a different means with which to support their families, not a one would have chosen to clear-cut the land.

According to “The Tragedy of Ecosystem Services” degradation of natural processes priced at 33 trillion annually (in 1994 dollars) results from a failure to recognize and value them. Simply put, in a system which prioritizes making money, protecting the commons doesn’t.  Services created by natural processes but unvalued in the present market system include clean water, clean air, stable weather patterns, carbon sequestration in forests, and soil fertility.

In this article, C. L. Lant, J. B. Ruhl, and S.E. Kraft outline three ways humans have historically treated “ecosystem services”: private property law, government regulation, and common law.

They  concur with the ample documentation that indicates current US private property law is inevitably regressive in terms of care for the commons.

Government regulation is an important stop-gap to save resources that might otherwise be lost forever. But in its overriding of local decision-making, such regulation may lead not only to resistance on the part of local communities,  but to oppositions between interest groups that obscure recognition of the commons itself.

The third way of caring for “ecosystem services” is by taking up the precedent of common law, which has fallen by wayside in the emphasis on private property in the US legal system since the nineteenth century.  The Mongolian pasturage and northwest fishing situations are models of such common law—as are older European grazing traditions.

The authors of this article propose that the best way for such common law to be developed and enforced is by local communities within particular ecosystems.  There are interesting parallels between such common law and the legal “rights of nature”, since both set up legal rights for the protection of natural commons.

Though these authors have no illusions about the shift in cultural values and economic habits such common law might require, they insist we cannot continue to ignore the value of natural systems that sustain our lives —letting them be grabbed and used up by whomever can do so.

Many indigenous cultural traditions see the natural commons as priceless—and their protection as taking precedence over individual human rights to amass wealth, for instance.  These traditions  express holistic worldviews that respect the intrinsic value of all earthly life–extending their sense of family to all species in the circle of time that includes, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe framed it, ” a community of the living, the dead and the unborn.”

A vision of the whole that extends our awareness and responsibility arms us to reverse the tragedy of the commons.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Side Effects: A Cultural Shell Game?

According to a FDA study, 100,000 people die annually in the US from drugs that are properly prescribed and taken as directed. The third leading cause of death in this country after heart disease and cancer is undergoing a medical procedure. So why do we keep buying these drugs–and buying into elective medical procedures in growing numbers?

We seem to be caught up in a shell game: you know, where the carnival huckster does something flamboyant with the left hand so that his audience misses what he is hiding with his right one. That’s the kind of sleight of hand in pharmaceutical ads, according to Melody Petersen, author of Our Daily Meds. Such ads depict a “Disneyland” atmosphere in which an arthritic person (or an unhappy or an incontinent one) transforms before our eyes into a tango-dancer as a result of swallowing a pill.

With their attention diverted to the magic, viewers ignore the voice-over that hastens through the list of side effects that include “in rare cases, death”. A study co-sponsored by the FDA found that nearly 50 million people responded to pharmaceutical ads by requesting the named drug from their physician.

This selling technique not only works, but works spectacularly–and as a result large pharmaceutical companies have recently shifted their major investment from research to marketing. Today almost 65 per cent of the US population is taking physician-prescribed drugs.I’m sure that the 470 who committed suicide after taking a drug for urinary incontinence might have thought twice about swallowing it had they been told in a more sober atmosphere that the side effects of this drug included severe anxiety, depression and mental disorientation.

A number of modern drugs, including the ones implicated in the suicides, mimic Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. Petersen notes that thirty per cent of those recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s were taking drugs that were likely responsible for their symptoms. However, instead of stopping these drugs, their doctors characteristically give them others.

If drugs cause a problem, it’s because we haven’t taken enough of them?

If we want to become those happy people depicted in the drug commercials, we’ve got to risk a dollop of death as a side effect?

Evidently we’re supposed to swallow this line along with our drugs and risk our death—or someone else’s–in the process. This is not only the kind of thinking that sells us drugs; it’s also the kind of thinking that sold us the war in Iraq. In fact it’s the kind of thinking that has gotten industrialized countries into similar problems all over the globe, as Naomi Klein points out in her book on “disaster capitalism”. A disaster is an excellent distraction: a perfect way to get people to accept what they wouldn’t normally accept.

President Bush played this game when he used the grief and fear generated by the September attacks to justify his war. One side effect– “collateral damage” it’s called when it happens in war– is the somewhere between ninety thousand and one million civilian casualties. A pretty broad range, but we don’t keep good data on side effects. We do know, however, that the tally of the dead from this war has surpassed the number of those who died under Hussein.

Like “friendly fire”, the Bush administration tells us we must accept such “collateral damage”. We only swallowed the bitter war pill because our eyes were fixed on vaporous “weapons of mass destruction” (a carnival trick if ever there was one). Absent that, we might have considered whether bombing their children would convince anyone to follow our way of life.

Meanwhile, there was money to be made by the contractors who sold substandard supplies to outfit our soldiers at exorbitant rates– including contractors related to the business interests of our current vice-president. But we weren’t looking at that. In fact, we still aren’t. Even though we now know George Bush was well aware there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, he is still president and Cheney is still vice-president.

TV networks such as Fox who helped engineer the shell game in this instance are implicated in this tragedy. But much as I’d like to blame them– and in spite of their cynical agreement with their advertisers not to show body bags (it seems it dampens the urge to buy things), I can’t make them wholly responsible.

If our cultural tendencies didn’t prime us for the shell game, we wouldn’t be taken in by it. But it’s the way we’ve been thinking since we “settled” this country and used the rubric of Manifest Destiny to “civilize” indigenous people by devastating them– a bit of a side effect that might have caused us to re-evaluate our actions had we focused our attention in that direction.

We are no longer living in those times, but we ought to learn something from history. What we ignore in the shell game doesn’t go away–its costs just surprise us when they come due.

We are still holding on to ideological bulldozers– and technological ones. We bulldoze our landscape to “develop” it, neglecting side effects on storm water systems, soil quality, fire and slide dangers and aesthetics—not to mention habitat loss for uncounted species. The price of one such side effect is $250,000 per tree cut down in the process. That is the recent Forest Service valuation of the ecosystem services of a standard urban tree during its life cycle.

I can’t imagine what the price would be for pesticide to spray a residential lawn if we counted the side effects involved. Some of those can’t be priced, like the autism resulting from exposure to chemically fixed pyrethrum. This side effect isn’t very surprising. The drug is, after all, a nerve toxin–and one specifically engineered to persist in the environment, unlike its botanical counterpart. Mercury still used as preservative in certain vaccines is also a neural toxin: but is only now coming into public disrepute for its own connection to our rising autism rates.

We saw only vanished insects and vanquished disease as we went “full steam ahead”, but our children pay the price for this negligence.

There is a tale from ancient India that relates how a do-gooder, in his single-minded attempt to control an inconvenience in nature, creates a drought that empties the entire world of water.

Modern Westerners still haven’t learned the lesson in this tale. We might mean to do well: to alleviate suffering or terrorism—or weeds and fleas. (Eliminating other peoples is something else again). But if we look for quick fixes, ignoring the complex results of our actions, we might as well hand over our money and our lives to the hucksters now and eliminate the suspense as to how things will turn out.

You are always welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, by Madronna Holden, and if you wish to copy it, please email for permission. Thanks.