The tragedy of the commons

grazing cows and the tragedy of the commons“Don’t worry darling, there are plenty more fish in the sea ” said my mother as she comforted me after my girlfriend dumped me in 1983. It was little solace to my heartbreak then: a platitude worn thin by careless usage. It is even less use today, because it is no longer true. Sorry Mum. There aren’t plenty more fish in the sea.

Cefas, the government fisheries laboratory, has announced that  there are only one hundred adult cod left in the North Sea according to their estimates. Yes, that’s right only a hundred. Mature cod can live for up to 25 years and reach lengths of 6 foot. In 2011, a North Sea survey of catches showed not a single fish that was older than 13 years. Cod become more fertile as they get older. Most cod are caught when they have barely reached sexual maturity, on average when they are 4 years old. If there are no older fish, there are no eggs and larvae to perpetuate future generations. In the early 1970s, trawlers were catching 360,000 tons of cod a year in the North Sea. This year the catch is only 32,000, less than one tenth of the previous level but still 50% higher than the sustainable limit according to Cefas.

What makes this even sadder is that it is not a new story. It has happen before. In 1992, the Canadian Government finally banned all cod fishing in the Grand Banks following the complete collapse of the fish stocks. In Newfoundland, 35,000 fishermen became unemployed overnight, devastating the local economy and ending a traditional industry with a 500 year pedigree. The fishing moratorium was intended to last only 2 years to let the fish stocks recover. Sadly, this did not happen. It is only now, 20 years later, that cod stocks are recovering again but they are still at only 10% of previous levels. So the current collapse of the North Sea cod fishery is merely repeating a journey down a well worn tragic path*. If you plan on going fishing soon make sure to check out the best fishing kayak.

The crisis of the cod fisheries in both Newfoundland and now the North Sea were well flagged many years in advance. So the real question is  “Why didn’t someone do something about it before it was too late?” The short answer is that they couldn’t. The collapse in fish stocks had a ghastly inevitability; a high-sided luge track leading to disaster.  This phenomenon is known as the tragedy of the commons. Individuals acting in self interest deplete a common resource, even though it is in no one’s long term interest for this to happen. It was first observed by Thucydides and Aristotle, then resurfaced in the arguments over the British Enclosure Acts in the 18th Century but was most precisely defined in economic terms in a paper by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. It is also an excellent example of the reversal of virtue at a catataxic boundary.

In the tragedy of the commons, the word “tragedy” does not imply unhappiness and sorrow but rather the inevitableness of destiny, a remorseless working of logic to its inescapable conclusion. The logic working here is the economic concept of marginal utility. Picture an area of common ground – maybe a village green. Local cattle herdsmen have the right to graze their animals there. Gradually the number of cattle increase until the size of the herd is greater than the amount the grazing land can support. This is the catataxic boundary. The time when more of the same becomes different. Each individual herdsman is faced with a choice: should he put more cows on the pasture or fewer?  At this point the marginal utility equation comes into effect. He gains all the benefits of putting his extra cow on the common, but the negative effects are shared amongst all. He owns the cow but he does not own the commons. So the marginal utility to him as an individual is an overall positive: he gets all the upside, others share the downside. Therefore the logical course is for him is to keep putting more cows on the pasture until it is destroyed.

There are many examples of the tragedy of the commons and it is central to many of the problems of the modern world. Traffic congestion, email spam, the destruction of the rain forest, water shortages, pollution, global warming and overfishing all examples of the abuse of the commons. In each case, a slight gain to a self-interested individual results in a major detrimental effect to the larger community. So, for example, the new car owner gains some mobility but causes traffic congestion for everyone else. The online marketer gets a tiny positive hit rate as he clogs up the internet with spam. A farmer’s borehole to irrigate his parched crops lowers the water table for everyone else. Likewise,illegal logging, factory fishing fleets and toxic waste from chemical plants destroy the environment for every one else.

So what is the solution? In 18th century England the answer was obvious. Put the commons into private ownership. If the same man owns both the cow and the land, there is an economic incentive for effective stewardship. He owns all the upside and all the downside and so will manage both to positive effect. This was the argument behind the hugely unpopular “Inclosure Acts”: acts of parliament that allowed large landowners to expropriate  common land, turfing off peasant farmers and enriching themselves in the process. The Highlands of Scotland were cleared of crofters who then emigrated to the USA and in turn expropriated land from the native indians through similar trickery with title deeds. In England, a landless working class was created to feed the newly emerging “dark satanic mills” depicted in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony. Karl Marx, living in London and watching from the sidelines, saw this as the first act in the class struggle that would eventually lead to the triumph of the proletariat. He outlined a different solution to the tragedy of the commons. He believed that the commons should be owned by the state not private individuals; hence, communism.

Since then, more nuanced solutions have emerged. Elinor Ostrom, who sadly died this June, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her work on the tragedy of the commons problem. Her solution was neither private nor state ownership, but local, communal ownership. She call such a solution “common pool resource” (CPR) management.  After years studying pasture management systems in villages in Africa and Nepal, she codified a set of rules which would enable common resources to be exploited in a sustainable way. In essence, these involve clear cut boundaries between entitled locals and outsiders and a strong set of property rights and sanctions administered in a self determined way by the local community. To some, this CPR solution is the holy grail: a temperate middle path between the twin evils of rapacious capitalism and spirit-crushing communism. But others will notice that this solution the problem requires the introduction of a different type of evil: xenophobia.

CPR requires a clear division between locals who have ownership rights and outsiders who don’t. There needs to be a line drawn between “us” and “them”. Through rose tinted spectacles, CPR is the idealised English village community; good neighbours, earnest vicars, friendly grocers, church fetes, a good local school and a cracking village pub. Take off those spectacles and you see small mindedness, nimby attitudes, petty chauvinism, corrupt local councillors, disapproving frowns from behind twitching lace curtain and the all the ghastly wrangling of the local housing committee.

Any system that encourages the demonisation of outsiders and foreigners is surely to be deplored. One headline in the weekend press was more tragic than the story about disappearing cod. It was the killing of the US Ambassador in Libya. J.Christopher Stevens was  a Peace Corps veteran, fluent in arabic with a deep knowledge of the Middle East; surely just the type of of ambassador Libya should welcome. He was killed by militant Islamists enraged by an offensive movie put on YouTube by a US citizen on the West Coast. It seems so unfair that a sympathetic arabist in Libya should be killed in retaliation for the actions of a crazed bigot in California, but to a xenophobe all foreigners are the same.

So the tragedy of the commons has three solutions, all with potentially negative side effects. Is there nothing positive to be said? Yes, there is. Let’s look at the mirror image of the tragedy which we could term the “comedy” of the commons or the “inverse commons”. This is where a small negative to an individual results in a major positive benefit to the community. Those who believe in the economic utility function would classify this self-harming, altruistic behaviour as impossible. But not only does it exist, it is the basis of a lot of successful business models in the new information economy.  The best example is Wikipedia where individuals contribute their knowledge for free for the good of the greater community. The “inverse commons” concept is also at the heart of the “facebook” social networking revolution and open source software movement.

On a lighter note, even cod shortage may have a silver lining. Fewer cod has meant a boom in the population of the crustacea that the cod feed on. It looks like you will be swapping your “cod and chips” for “scampi and chips” in the future…

* For those who are interested in further reading on the subject, I highly recommend Cod by Mark Kurlansky (Vintage, 1999) and The End of The Line by Charles Clover (Ebury Press, 2004).

The Olympics – who really won ?

Andy Murray Olympic MedalistI spent a few weeks in Scotland at the Edinburgh festival on my summer holiday. I was struck by how the local press was trumpeting how successful “Scotland” had been in the Olympics, even though it was competing as part of the UK. Had Scotland been a separate county it would have come 12th in the league tables with 13 medals ( UK as a whole won 65). On the other hand, people who dream of an independent Scotland must have been disappointed to see Scots like Chris Hoy and Andy Murray draped in the Union Jack after winning their golds and proclaiming their pride in being part of “Team GB”.

The Olympic medal table shows how many medals each country won. You might think that it should be very easy to figure out was is the overall winner. Not true. Even with such a simple set of underlying facts there are plenty of tricks you can play in the interpretation of those facts. Which only goes to prove the old adage “Statistics are often used as a drunk man uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination”.

The version of the table most familiar to readers of the UK press goes like this, with the UK in third place:


Rank      Country               Gold            Silver            Bronze            Total

1.             USA                     46                 29                   29                  104

2.             China                   38                 27                   23                     88

3.             UK                       29                 17                   19                     65

4.              Russia                 24                 26                   32                     82

5.             Germany              11                 19                    14                     44


But you will notice that this ranking is on the number of Gold medals. If you rank countries by the total number of medals won, then Russia is third with 82 medals and the UK moves down to fourth place with 65.  Then again, maybe it is not fair to rank each medal the same. Surely a Gold medal should be worth more than a Silver. So you can give a weight to each medal like this: a gold is worth three points, silver two points and bronze one point.  After crunching the numbers, the result is still the same. Russia is third with 156 points and UK fourth with 140 points. For some other countries it makes a more dramatic difference. South Korea won 13 gold medals and relatively few medals of other rank. They score 5th on the “Gold only” ranking but only 10th on the weighted points method.

There are further steps to you can take to come up with a fair method of deciding who really won. Not all countries are the same size. Large countries have a larger pool of talent to pick from. So maybe a fairer method would be to adjust for population size and measure  medal haul per head of population. If you do this the ranking becomes:

Olympic medals per capita

  1. Grenada
  2. Jamaica
  3. Bahamas
  4. New Zealand
  5. Trinidad and Tobago
  6. Montenegro

Then again, since training top level athletes is expensive, it might be fairer to adjust for a country’s wealth rather than population size. If you look at the medals to GDP ratio then Granada and Jamaica are still at the top but the rest all change change:

Olympic medals to GDP ratio

  1. Grenada
  2. Jamaica
  3. North Korea
  4. Mongolia
  5. Georgia
  6. Kenya

There is another possible factor that might distort the results: team size. If you enter lots of athletes then you are likely to win more medals. So if you adjust for the size of the olympic team that was sent to the games the table looks like this :

Olympic medals to olympic team size ratio

  1. China
  2. Jamaica
  3. Iran
  4. Botswana
  5. USA
  6. Ethiopia

All of which goes to show that if you play with the data enough then everyone is a winner. Maybe a better conclusion is that sport is about athletes competing and that the glory should belong to the individual not the country. In other words, all the arguments about which “country” was the winner are merely a catataxic distraction. The spirit of the competition lies at level one (the person) not level two (the nation). Nationalistic triumphalism hijacks the very essence of the competition. Maybe things have not changed that much since Hitler’s Berlin Games of 1936.

All of the above examples are merely reshuffling the order of existing countries as recognised by the Olympic Organising Committee.  We can highlight the catataxic issues at the heart of the debate by playing with the concept of “country” which is much more flawed than you might think. Let’s returning to the Scottish example we started with. Scots athletes won 13 medals, but this includes team medals.  If you exclude the team sports (show jumping, gymnastics, rowing, canoe slalom, tennis doubles, team cycling) where the team was not 100% Scottish then you are left with only 3 medals – two golds ( Hoy and Murray)  and silver in swimming from Jamieson. Not too encouraging if Scotland competes under the blue saltire flag in Rio in 2016. If you want start practicing gymnastics here are some of the best gymnastics mats for home.

Would Scots athletes automatically be part of Team Scotland? Not necessarily. Northern Ireland sets an interesting precedent.  It is technically under the jurisdiction of the Olympic Council of Ireland, despite being part of the United Kingdom. Athletes from Northern Ireland can choose whether to join the Irish or UK Olympic team. There were three people in the team that won the Sprint Cycling medal for the UK: an Englishman, a Scotsman and a German (Phillip Hindes). Sounds like the beginning of a joke? Well, it is. The joke being nationalism in the Olympics.

I must confess to getting a small frisson of pleasure when I saw a medal ceremony with the three flags of the UK, New Zealand and Australia in gold, silver and bronze positions: they all had the union jack in at least part of the flag. One definition of a country is “a group of people who share the same flag”. If you were to recast the table so that all countries with a Union Jack in the flag were viewed as a single entity then then the supra-country “Union Jack Land” beats China with 42 gold medals and 113 medals overall.

Maybe can use a different definition of a country: territories that are united by a single head of state. The USA has President Obama. We can theoretically create  “Elizabethland”: those countries that have Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State.  This, amongst others, includes UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada.  The total medal haul is 143, of which 48 are gold, which puts this entity top of the list whichever way you count it. The USA is second with 105 and 46 respectively.

A third definition of country could be this: a group of territories that form a single economic entity with a single currency. In which case the Eurozone would be the overall winner by far with a total (weighted method) medal score of 276. This is possibly the only positive thing that can be said about membership of the Eurozone at present….