Thursday, September 9, 2010

Vaclav Smil’s 2004 article on Garrett Hardin

In the world fond of simple associations, Garrett Hardin will be remembered above all as the man who made millions familiar with a concept known as "the tragedy of the commons." He wrote an article with that title for Science in 1968, when the first wave of environmental consciousness was swelling. That short essay became one of the most famous (and among the most cited and reprinted) pieces of ecological or, as Hardin would have preferred, "bioethical" writing.

Contrary to the usual perception, this concept was not Hardin's invention. Such grand generalizations almost always have important precedents. Hence it is doubtful that even Aristotle, who pointed out long ago that "what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it," was the first to reach this conclusion. Hardin does, however, deserve credit for recognizing the magnitude and the inevitability of this tragedy: It's not a deviancy or madness but rather perfectly rational behavior that leads to the long-term ruin of the commons, a word that evokes communal agricultural lands but also applies to ecosystems, rivers, oceans, organisms or mineral resources. That is, actions that benefit the individual (meaning single persons, households, villages, companies or nations) in the short term often end up hurting the collective.

Hardin's greatest service was presenting this notion in the form of a captivating parable about an overgrazed pasture and expressing it in precise, resonant language that left no room for appealing the initial verdict. He wrote: "Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons." (Today's editors would, of course, have tried to force Hardin to change "men" to "people" or some other politically correct choice—probably to no avail.) He realized that this ruinous dynamic operates in any number of cases involving environmental pollution and the degradation of ecosystems. These instances include three of the leading concerns of our generation: extensive and drastic commercial overfishing of the oceans, continuing deforestation of the humid tropics and rising emissions of greenhouse gases, which may cause serious global warming during the latter half of this century.


Related book (also a Charlie Munger recommendation): Living within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos