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*.

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).

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