Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Tragedy of the Commons

As I lay in bed this morning enjoying a leisurely breakfast and catching up on my Twitter feed, this article from the Huffington Post caught my eye. My first reaction--like that of most people in the Western world, I imagine-- was, "What the fuck is wrong with people?" My second, more considered reaction was to recognize this horror as a perfect illustration of what economists have long known as "the Tragedy of the Commons."

While these shark harvesters are surely perpetrating a grievous offense against the ecology of the sea, I would argue--the requisite emotional recoil of those of us in the more ecologically sensitive West notwithstanding--that they are not evil, but merely desperate. Like similar people who callously poach elephants for their ivory and rhinos for their horns, clear-cut rain forests, and so forth, these shark harvesters do what they do because they are trying, in the limited way available to them, to survive and feed their families.

Enter the "commons."

When you own a resource, you protect it, care for it, preserve it, because you gain by doing so. When a resource is commonly accessible to all, but no one has direct authority over it, nobody has an incentive to care for it. "It's not mine, so what do I care? Somebody else will take care of it."

By way of illustration, think about public toilets. Have you ever been in a restroom in a public park, or at the beach? While a local government entity may be responsible for the upkeep of these facilities, they tend overwhelmingly to be very shabby exemplars of personal sanitation technology. If you have two restrooms, one in a McDonalds and one on a public beach, which is the more likely to be clean, well-stocked, fully operational, graffiti free and absent homeless junkies passed out in a river of shit and vomit? I think we all know the answer.

This is not to say that people *won't* care for a common resource. There are numerous examples of spontaneous self-regulation amongst the users of common resources, but the more vast a resource is, or is perceived to be, the less aggressively people attempt to conserve it. The world's oceans certainly engender a perception of near limitlessness, and the general trend--especially in economically depressed, poverty-ridden areas of the world--is for individuals to take maximum advantage of common resources for immediate short term gain, even to the detriment and eventual destruction of that resource. Hence, the tragedy of the commons.

So what to do about it? How can fishermen in Asia make their living and protect the sea from overfishing? The law scarcely seems to have been an effective deterrent, as the disturbing rooftop image in the HuffPo attests. Shark harvesters continue to ply their trade with relative impunity, despite international laws, treaties and pressures. So what is the alternative?

Private property. Ownership of resources. Overfishing happens, and will continue to happen, because the resources in question are not the province of any particular person or entity. In other words, because nobody owns these sharks. Sound weird? Not so much.

If these fishermen were permitted to purchase exclusive title to a given section of ocean, and only permitted to fish within that area (this happens all over the world), they would be motivated to care for it. They would see that it is not overfished, that carcasses weren't just discarded, that pollutants weren't dumped there and that other fishermen didn't harvest sharks there, because their livelihoods would depend upon it. If they exhausted their own domain, they could not simply move on to adjacent waters because those waters would be the purview of other fishermen. Fishing these waters without permission would, in effect, be theft; a transgression that, in certain parts of the world, could have lethal consequences for the would-be poacher.

It may not be the solution favored by environmental activists, and I don't claim that it is a perfect one. But in the absence of the ability to change people's hearts--to make them understand the harm they are doing to the environment or care about the destruction they wreak on these beautiful, ancient creatures--one can only hope to contrive a solution that makes doing the right thing a matter of their own self interest.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting idea to apply personal ownership to sections of the ocean. The main problem I see with this is overfishing would still be possible since most fish migrate and wouldn't stay within one section. There are already territorial disputes over certain schools of fish off the shores of the US by fisherman in various states. California, Washington, Oregon and Alaska fisherman all lay claim to certain migrating schools and protest those from other states catching them when they're in the other territories. Right now the state fishing agencies work together to set catch limits that won't deplete the schools but that doesn't stop the arguments.