Tragedy of the Commons, or the Rise of Globalization and Fall of Local Management Practices

(This was the dorm.)

During my sophomore year of college, I lived in a dormitory suite with five other girls. Four of us didn’t participate in the university meal plan, choosing instead to buy groceries and cook as a group. In our suite, we constructed a makeshift kitchen, mostly out of salvaged materials. Improvised though it was (we chopped our vegetables on top of a “counter” fashioned from a storm window), we loved and cared for it as newlyweds would their first kitchen.

For any meal preparation that required the use of stoves, we would migrate to the common-use kitchen upstairs. This kitchen served three floors of our tower, which amounted to 72 users. The combination of open-access common area and slovenly college students often led to problems of unkempt countertops and refrigerator negligence. Whereas I knew that my suite-mates had a very personal stake in the upkeep of our DIY kitchen, I never quite knew what to expect from the 71 other people who used the communal  kitchen, most of whom I hadn’t met and wouldn’t be able to recognize by face.

Garrett Hardin, ecologist who developed the "tragedy of the commons" concept. (image from The Pioneer Fund)

When it came to the dormitory kitchen, Garret Hardin’s words that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” seemed to ring true. Hardin is famous for coining the term “tragedy of the commons”, which refers to the depletion of a resource that is shared among individuals who act, rationally, in their own self-interest. Though each individual may benefit for a period of time, the inevitable collapse of the limited resource ultimately hurts everyone.

In the case of our communal kitchen, it did not necessarily benefit the student who left a mess to clean up after him or herself – in fact, it was far more time-effective to just take for granted that the next person to use the kitchen would deal with it. This is especially true if the student assumed that he or she did not know the next user of the kitchen, and therefore had little sense of accountability to that person. In other words, the time and convenience afforded by ignoring the problem could outweigh the moral qualms of transferring that problem to someone else. Furthermore, the perpetrator might also predict that, by the next time he or she used the kitchen, other people will have already cleaned it for his or her own use. Overall, the situation removed any sense of ownership from the individual and culminated in the degradation of the kitchen environment.

This micro-scale example illustrates a much broader, recurring trend that often incurs consequences far more dire than an unbecoming kitchen. Some examples of actual “tragedies of commons” include overpopulation, air and water pollution, spam e-mail, littering, and traffic. Given the pervasiveness of the tragedy of the commons, it is useful to investigate the potential for creative solutions in which the management of communal resources allows for the triumph, rather than the downfall, of the commoner.

In an article entitled The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-two years later, authors David Feeny, Fikret Berkes, Bonnie J. McCay, and James M. Acheson make the argument that members of a given community, when left to their own devices, have the intellectual foresight and moral fiber to assert management practices that ensure sustainable resource use. They state that there exists “abundant evidence, contrary to Hardin, on the ability of social groups to design, utilize, and adapt often ingenious mechanisms to allocate use rights among members”. The authors cite several supporting examples, including the regulation of forest and meadow commons in Japanese villages.

In another article, Community-Run Fisheries: Avoiding the “Tragedy of the Commons”, author Donald R. Leal describes successful instances of community management in contemporary fisheries. Two examples include the territorial boundaries and management practices established by fishermen in Nova Scotia’s Port Lameron Harbor, and the Fishing Cooperative Associations (FCAs) that preside over nearshore fisheries in much of Japan.

In Port Lameron Harbor, where fishing livelihoods get passed down generations like a family heirloom, fishery management practices are inextricably linked to strong family traditions and local ties. Local fishermen stake claims to the coastal waters by asserting these family histories, as well as with informal threats of sabotage towards infringing fishermen. As a conflict avoidance strategy, the fishermen divided the harbor into zones that are each assigned to a specific type of fishing gear. However, with disregard to these locally-set boundaries, the government started to issue licenses for fishing gear in this area during the 1970s. Local fishers met the legislation with dissent and uproar, eventually forcing the government to recognize their territorial claims by giving them licenses to continue fishing there. Port Lameron Harbor is an example of a community-run fishery that successfully allocated its resources based on local tradition until the government attempted to interfere legislatively.

Some Fishing Cooperative Associations in Japan can be traced back to village guilds from the feudal era. (Image from The Christian Science Monitor)

Similarly, the Japanese FCAs, which regulate and assign rules for given fishing areas, can be traced back to village guilds that mediated disputes among fishermen during the Japanese fuedal era. Leal writes that the “adherence to the rules of a Japanese cooperative still depends very much on the cohesiveness of the local community linked to tradition”. He asserts that this community solidarity, which stems from deep-rooted social and cultural standards, motivates fishermen to remain faithful to the interests of the whole cooperative over exclusive personal interests.

These stories illuminate the integral role that strong community bonds play in determining the successful self-regulation of a commons. In regions with strong kinship ties and long-standing traditions, people gravitate more towards communal-pool resource management. In other words, community resource management occurs when people harbor concerns for the well-being of others with whom they share the commons. This can stem from the camaraderie of knowing that one’s great-grandfather once fished with so-and-so’s great-grandfather. It can stem from the archetypal obligation to “love thy neighbor”. Maybe the fishermens’ children go to school together. A robust sense of community spirit can beget effective ownership of a commons.

People also care more about the long-term maintenance of an environment with which they feel an intimate connection. This will apply only to the local population of any given setting. Only the inhabitants of a place can appreciate its nuances and quirks. They feel gratitude towards it for allowing their families to settle and grow there. They harbor the need to protect it. These feelings are of course amplified when ones family has lived in said place for countless generations, further underlining the importance of kinship and tradition.

Where is Baja California Sur? Yeah, I wondered too.

The question that we must wrestle with today, in a world that shrinks with every new technology we develop, is – can these local ties translate to a global community? In a paper entitled State Intervention and Abuse of the Commons, Emily Young suggests that these local, informal modes of governance will die with the times — especially when organized governments try to push their own agendas. Her paper focuses on the “tragedy of incursion” that occurred in two fisheries in Baja California Sur , Mexico. Young argues that these fisheries collapsed as a result of policies that aimed to commercialize the inshore fisheries and attract an influx of fishers for increased exports. The local loss of control over the fisheries opened up a black market in which fishers paid little attention to the long-term sustainability of their harvesting practices, focusing instead on maximizing short-term gain in an uncontrolled, free-for-all environment. The paper suggests that the entry of foreign markets can wreak havoc on locally-recognized resource management regimes and ultimately lead to the destruction of the commons that Hardin prophesied.

Label for canned "deep sea" lobster. This design was submitted to the Maine Secretary of State in 1891. (From Maine State Archives)

This idea that markets can unravel a commons is further supported by the examples of the whale and the lobster. While anthropogenic uses of the whale started only with the occassional scavenging of beached animals, whale-hunting took on a new vigor when the European and North American markets for products such as corsets, lamp oil, and lubricants exploded. Similarly, lobstering reached a peak when new canning technologies created a market for canned lobster meat. The stories of both animals provide historical evidence of a general trend towards overexploitation of resources when foreign markets enter the picture.

The consensus among Feeny, Leal, and Young is that the commons that Hardin refers to describes an open access situation – one in which the use of a resource is boundless and unregulated. These readings also suggest that while communal property regimes hold for intact local communities, once the kernel of global economy is planted, the circumstances tend to degenerate into ones of open access rather than communal ownership. This often happens because governments interfere by removing local regulations and replacing them with rules that often do not recognize local needs, require large amounts of bureacratic administration, and lend themselves to corruption and underhandedness.

So perhaps the tragedy of the commons is not a story about the innate destructiveness of human nature, but rather, one about globalization, and the transformation of isolated communities that emphasized traditional norms to open communities that suffer from the penetration of foreign markets and the immigration of workers that serve those markets. The introduction of these markets and foreign workers dilute the culture and bonds that created networks of communal ownership in the first place.

Mmm... not quite...

In the end, people have little sense of accountability towards strangers. One feels a lesser need to avoid conflict with strangers than with those who have a regular presence in one’s life. This explains the oft-untidy state of the communal kitchen in our dormitory. People tended to their personal suites because they had a connection to the people with whom they lived and the state of the environment in which they lived. When it came to the 72-person communal kitchen, those feelings of responsibility began to fade. People adopted the mentality that their individual actions didn’t matter as much in the overall maintenance of the space.

So what are some possible solutions to this global tragedy of the commons? Hardin argues that the solution stems from educating people so that they have a sincere, self-motivated desire to change their actions. Since we never fail to apply market strategies when solving problems, many institutions have also proposed fees that markets must pay to offset the negative externalities they create. An example is the cap-and-trade system to reduce pollution from emissions.

The papers cited in this article suggest that a key component of solving the tragedy of the commons must include keeping local management practices intact, or listening to the assertions of local resource users and stewards. Young recommends that international environmental organizations such as NRDC or WWF team up with local groups to promote these local interests in achieving conservation and sustainable harvesting practices. Maybe in order to save our commons, we must revisit the principles of communal ownership that are built around grassroots organization, ties to the land, and the basic instinct to love one’s neighbors over strangers.


4 thoughts on “Tragedy of the Commons, or the Rise of Globalization and Fall of Local Management Practices

  1. Fisheries problems are no longer rooted in ignorance of the principles of management, nor in ignorance of how to get the needed data. Local fishers, especially if they are in cooperatives based on gear, territory, or self-imposed science-based limits usually do a pretty good job. Once the fishery moves from “mission-oriented” (providing excellent products in a sustainable fashion) to “profit-oriented” (industrial fishing corporations using investment capital) the emphasis shifts from sustaining the fishery to competing amongst the fishers for maximum profit. Misinterpreting the concept of financial sustainability as if it were the same as biological sustainabiliity in a politically regulated system usually drives fisheries to collapse.

    Given the nature of modern fisheries as capitalist or investment-based endeavours, rather than artisanal endeavours, it is not easy to implement voluntary sustainability.

    Nice article!

    • Thanks for stopping by! I definitely agree, it is dangerous to impose financial frameworks when regulating natural resources. This is particularly true given that we are now dealing with global, rather than localized, markets. Now, more than ever, it is important to listen not just to the scientists, but to locals resource users who have spent their lives getting to know the fisheries from which they derive their livelihoods.

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