Tragedy of the Commons

The Washington Post ran an editorial not too long ago discussing a solution for a maritime instance of the tragedy of the commons.  The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory that states that when individuals in a community of shared resources, such as fishing areas, act according to their own self-interest, they end up depleting the resource they all depend on.  This happens because people are mostly short-sighted; also because often they have to choose between considering the welfare of all or starving themselves.  In dire circumstances, one can hardly expect people to sacrifice themselves for a future good others will enjoy.  This situation is fostered by our competitive capitalist marketplace.

When we are expected to compete against each other for jobs, for resources, for anything they need, what other result can there be?  Of course resources will be depleted and many will go without because of this focus on competition.  What we need to do is change our focus to cooperation, so that the tragedy of the commons will become an historical footnote.  This is of course difficult to do, as people have struggled for money for many ages.  Who would be the first to behave altruistically, when there are mouths to feed at home?

What is required to surmount this hurdle is government support for farmers, fishers, and so on during times when their access to the resources are limited.  Even better would be ongoing government support of those who work in necessary industries, so there would be no hardship for them when conditions are unfavorable.  This would limit their perceived need to compete to get more fish, crops, or other goods, and would reduce instances of resource depletion.  Government management of this kind is necessary to counteract the desperation of those who are simply trying to make a living, and cannot see beyond their own immediate concerns.

The root of this issue, though, is not resource management, but population control.  The sad truth is that the planet is finite; it can only support so much life, and we are overpopulated.  When the resources must be allocated, there is less now to go around than when our social systems were set up.  In fact, there is less now to go around than there was just a very few years ago.  Many people can remember an ecosystem that was once flourishing that now is missing many key species, and perhaps even desertified.  Overpopulation is a very difficult problem to address, but it must be addressed urgently.  Social justice is the way to counteract this, particularly practicing gender equality in the developing world.  When women have education and economic opportunity, they do not have so many children and enjoy a slightly higher standard of living.  Certainly they have fewer to provide for at home.  Also, relief from the burden of constant pregnancy frees them to do other things and provide better care for the children they do have.  For me, the real tragedy is that no one in America seems able to tackle this issue.  There is little discussion in the media or among politicians about this, and fertility is still a value in our society.  We are about to experience a perfect storm of overpopulation, resource depletion, and the accompanying climate change that will cause even more resource depletion.  I hope we do not need to go through a cataclysm such as we are likely facing before we are able to make the necessary changes to our way of life.


Copyright © 2016 Teresa Chupp.  All rights reserved.


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