In An Essay on the Principal of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus argued that world’s population would eventually and inevitably outgrow the resources available to sustain it. His ideas have been very influential as late as Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb and Garrett Hardin’s article “The Tragedy of the Commons” (both 1968).
Today many follow the reasoning of Malthus, Ehrlich, and Hardin and vociferously warn that an environmental catastrophe is inevitable unless the world’s governments take drastic action to prevent it. Meanwhile, the world’s population on the whole thrives nicely despite being much larger than Malthus’ greatest nightmare. The doomsayers are wrong for much the same reason that Malthus was wrong. They lack both imagination and faith in individuals and communities to make wise decisions.
Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her work in debunking Hardin’s article. He had told a parable in which villagers used a common pasture. Each was motivated to get as much use out of the pasture as possible, and together they overused it and destroyed it. Only regulation or private ownership of all resources could prevent this tragedy.
According to Ostrom’s research, many communities have successfully regulated common resources among themselves for centuries. While Hardin’s scenario does indeed happen far to often (witness overfishing of several different species in recent years), it is not inevitable. Successful management of resources at the local level can have as widely beneficial effect as mismanagement has a widely catastrophic effect.
Hardin’s followers insist on sweeping governmental initiatives at the national and international level, despite the fact that distant bureaucracies have a very poor record of adequate management and regulation. Suppose, for example, if the federal government tried to mandate commuting to work by bicycle. That would surely make the argument over President Obama’s health care plan seem like a card party by comparison. And yet if enough city governments build bike trails, people will use them and reduce carbon emissions significantly.
Consider the following facts:
- Cheese makers in the Swiss Alps have successfully managed their commons for 800 years.
- Many (but certainly not all) communities in China have regulated their commons for even longer, and the Chinese reforestation rate exceeds most of the rest of the world.
- The American west seems to have reached peak water in the 1970s, but no one noticed until recently.
- More and more American businesses are turning to green technology to help their bottom line.
The world can make sustainable use of its resources. The more national governments encourage local initiatives (public sector, but especially private sector), the less need there will be for top-down regulation. The question is not whether an environmental catastrophe can be avoided, but if a critical mass of people will see the advantages of more cooperation and longer-term thinking.
The Non-Tragedy of the Commons by John Tierney
A Conversation with the 2009 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics by Jennifer Schonberger