The tragedy of the commons

The tragedy of the commons

By By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

In 1853, the native American philosopher, Chief Seattle, wrote the following:

“This we know: The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth.

This we know: All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.

Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons of the Earth.

Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.

Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

As I wander around northern Illinois and look at the rapid destruction of the landscape by shopping malls, housing developments, industrial parks, motels, and convenience gas and food stores, Chief Seattles’s words written 150 years ago invoke the following thoughts concerning what is happening to our native land:

Somewhere east of Eden, some 500,000 years ago, a new species appeared on the planet earth, Homo sapiens, man This new species, however, was different from any of the other inhabitants of the earth—Man was able to think, and by using his large brain quickly gained dominance over all the others.

I imagine it did not take this new species very long to realize he was the center of the universe and everything, both animate and inanimate, revolved around him. He became totally anthropocentric when he concluded he was the only species of importance, and all the others were there only to serve his needs. And, this man-centered way of thinking has prevailed ever since! Even when Copernicus, 500 years ago, proved the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, man’s inherent anthropocentricity has persisted.

Man alone has the capacity to change the environment, and thereby his evolution, for his perceived benefit and to the detriment of the other species. This pattern of thinking has progressed throughout man’s history on earth. He has wantonly utilized the planet and its inhabitants, as if they belonged exclusively to him and his fellow humans. It was all common property. And, this course of action has led to what the renowned scientist Garret Hardin has termed “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way: envision a pasture open to all, and it is expected that each user of the grazing land will keep as many animals as possible on this common ground. For a considerable period of time, perhaps centuries, this arrangement will work out reasonably well. Rustling, tribal wars, and diseases will keep the numbers of users and cattle below the carrying capacity of the pasture. But, finally the day of reckoning arrives when the capability of the land has finally reached its limit.

As rational creatures, each herdsman seeks to maximize his holdings and asks himself the following question: “What are the advantages and disadvantages to me if I add one more animal to my herd?” He immediately recognizes his proposed action has one positive and one negative component. The positive component is a function of his herd’s increase by one animal. As the herdsman will receive all the benefit from the use or sale of this one animal, his advantage can be assigned a +1.0 value.

The negative component is related to the overgrazing of the commons. This negative effect, however, is shared by all of the other herdsmen using the commons, so the disadvantage to this one individual is only a fraction of -1.0. Adding it up algebraically, the herdsman arrives at a positive value and proceeds to add another animal to his herd, and another, and another. Unsurprisingly, this same conclusion is reached by the other herdsmen sharing the commons, and therein lies the tragedy. The commons is eventually destroyed.

Concerned individuals, and there are many, ask what they can do to protect the commons (the environment)? If morals and ethics on the part of politicians and money-seeking developers are not enough to persuade these individuals to call an immediate halt to the seemingly unending sprawl in our area, there is another way; the use of the 9th amendment to the constitution of the United States.

The long ignored 9th amendment warns us that the listing of rights in the other amendments, such as freedom of religion, privacy, and speech does not eliminate other rights retained by the people. Clearly, if the people have the rights of privacy, speech, to bear arms, and freedom of religion, they must also have the right to a decent environment, a protection of their commons. Why is this clear? It is because if we do not have a decent environment all the rest of our rights will prove to be nothing but illusions. Henry David Thoreau summed it up 160 years ago when he said, “What’s the use of having a house if you haven’t a planet to put it on?” Now is the time to use the power of the 9th amendment to regulate and diminish future destruction of the land.

It is true this right under the 9th amendment is rarely articulated in the courts, but until the fairly recent destruction of the commons, there has been no need to insist the right be enforced. Special interest groups have traditionally fought against the passage of regulations or laws designed to preserve the commons, but vocal and active public support for laws designed to protect the environment are the keys to maintaining a semblance of ecological sanity.

Some will say the situation has gone too far and nothing can be done to reverse the trend toward environmental destruction. That, the big-money interests and the politically powerful will always be able to stymie or circumvent the establishment of a new environmental ethic we might attempt to establish.

If we adopt this defeatist attitude, certainly all will be lost. I believe in the power of the people, and if the masses really want to save the commons, they have the ability and the constitutional authority to do so.

Many feel it must be done, no matter how difficult the task may prove to be. Few things appear to be more important to the Rock River Valley in the year 2002.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of eastern Maryland, with degrees in zoology and botany. He is a former professor of biological science. He has had 30 scientific papers published, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on marine biology of Maryland.

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