One of the classic readings in environmental science, the Tragedy of the Commons by Garret Hardin reflects how current issues on population, pollution and natural resource management are being dealt with today. Published in Science in 1968, this article advances the idea that not all of human problems can be addressed by technical solutions and that human freedom must have limits to sustain the life support systems.
Finiteness of Natural Resources
Hardin emphasizes the finiteness of resources as opposed to frontier thinking where natural resources are regarded as inexhaustible. As the human population increases in number, greater demand for goods and services which are drawn out from the surrounding environment is required to supply those needs.
For many years, the products derived from different ecosystems are free to access and use by the people. These resources are termed collectively as “commons”, available to everyone upon demand.
But earth has its limits, the geometric growth of population demands more mouths to feed, and there came a call to stop, or reduce the number of people to optimum levels. This is to ensure that the needs of each individual are adequately met. Policies to govern human behaviour are forged not only within nations, but also among nations, to prevent tipping the balance of man and his source of sustenance.
But policies such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1967, appears to be inconsistent with worldwide concern on population growth. The declaration describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society and that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.
The freedom to breed and the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons will bring the world towards a state of imbalance – the tragedy of the commons. An increase in population will mean a reduction of the proportion of the “big pie” for each additional person recruited.
Many policy makers appeal to people’s conscience to advance a cause. But this is a mistake because people respond to such appeal in different ways. Those with conscience might rightly do respond to limit procreation in their families but in doing so their population will be reduced towards possible extinction.
Coercion as a Means to an End
Hardin used the word coercion as a means to prevent the tragedy of the commons. This can be achieved through creative means like the modern system of taxation. People are not forbidden to use a resource but have to pay for it. This should be agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.
The final solution to tragedy of the commons is to institute understanding of the necessity to abandon the freedom to breed. Education should be the medium by which this must be achieved.
©23 July 2011 Patrick A. Regoniel Tragedy of the Commons