Friday, January 4, 2008

Happy New Year!

Another year begins and the prospects for humans are still iffy. The threat of global nuclear Armageddon has hopefully receded somewhat, but we still face major global threats such as pollution and climate change.

This week's citation classic anticipates the problems with pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.
Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162: 1243-1248.

The tragedy of the commons is a conflict between individual interest and the common good. Hardin describes it here in the context of herdsmen grazing cattle on a pasture shared with his fellows:

"Picture a pasture open to all. It is expected that each herdsman will keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.... As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously he asks, 'What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?'"

The answer has a positive component and a negative component. For positive, the herdsman gains an additional cow and the proceeds that result from selling that cow later. For negative, overgrazing will reduce the proceeds gained from that cow. However, the positive outweighs the negative, so the herdsman always adds another cow... and another... and another.

This conclusion is reached by each herdsman sharing the commons.

"Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom of the commons brings ruin to all."

Producing carbon dioxide is something we all do, and it is precisely the type of desecration of the commons that Hardin is speaking of. However, as a global tragedy, it is precisely the most difficult one to solve. However, an appropriate start is for the United States and the global community to make a strong commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. Currently, of the 174 ratifying parties, no country has passed national legislation requiring compliance with their treaty obligation.

Science mag has collected the paper and some responses in a special issue.
The Garrett Harding Society can be accessed here.


  1. It's interesting how rarely people citing this paper mention his main point: "The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon." Although birth rates have fallen in many countries, mostly without the "mutual coercion" he advocated to reduce birth rates, world population has almost doubled since this paper was published.

    I haven't kept up my blog on tragedies of the commons, but here's a link to older posts.

  2. Some world: wanton Nature absent-mindedly shuffled a passel of butt-scratching australopithecines, and shook out luminaries from Shakespeare to Rumi. Sublime poets, but maybe it was Malthus who gave us our real chance to transcend the condition of E coli - did we whiff on the basics? Actually, we should be so lucky with the human condition - at least when E coli acidifies its environment or exhausts its energy substrate, it can whip out an handy alternative sigma factor, assume a very hardy quasi-spore state, and peacefully wait to drift into another world.

    I've been taking a look at some of the big issues - peak oil, climate, alternative energy, nuclear power, etc. James Lovelock certainly has some gaudy carbon-pessimisms for anyone who cares to listen - thinks we're about set to cook, thanks to feedforwards like albedo loss as ice turns to water, and CO2 evolving from bacterial decomposition of orgaic matter frozen into now-melting permafrost. Anyone have any favorites I should read, instead of poking listlessly at sections of the World Energy Assessment report, the IPCC report, the MIT report on nuclear energy, etc? Not that I have anything against those, but I wish I could get a quicker handle on the issues. For example, whether we actually know that energy storage from discontinuous power sources (wind and solar) is affordably implementable, or not (if not... well we better think of something else). I'm not well-informed about physics, either, and don't even know whether the loss of electricity is high when it is sent long distances (100s of miles) over the wires.

    I don't even know enough, myself, to have a firsthand scientific opinon on whether significant anthropogenic warming is in process. But it's crazy that we've gotten to this point at all, where most people think we have a serious problem and at least a few already think it is basically "too late."

    When contemplating these uncertainties of unthinkable import, it's hard for me not to think maybe the nuke camp has it right - the people who say we should all just scrap the system and go for nuclear power like France has. I really don't know, though.