Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ten: Thinking About The Tragedy Of The Commons


The case is that overpopulation is a problem without a technical solution; the solution has to be in the behavior of individuals; individuals whose consciences allow them to act against the larger interest will out-compete individuals who act in the larger interest, and shape the future to fit their desires; coercion of individuals by society is necessary, both to keep irresponsible people from shaping the future, and to be fair to those same, conscienceless individuals; there are precedents for this kind of restricted freedom; society’s net freedom will increase because there will be less wear and tear on the commons, that decline restricting freedom by reducing wealth; the restriction, “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,” must be negotiated among the members of society.

The web site where I read “The Tragedy of the Commons,” dieoff.org, includes an objection to Hardin’s argument, by Beryl Crowe. The essence of the objection is that social values are too diverse to allow the negotiation of mutual coercion.

Hardin was writing hard on the heels of the civil rights movement, and at the height of the Viet Nam War, and its antithetical social experimentation. Hardin himself seems to have been partisan to the antithesis, given his comments about the “Dark Age of Eros” and Puritanism. American society may have seemed almost monolithic then, in spite of war resistance, psychedelics, and the sexual revolution. America was a white protestant milieu, at a peak of human wealth, under the fairly benign gaze of paternalistic capitalism. Catholic and Jewish assimilation, black assertion of equal rights, feminism, Islam, Buddhism, new age beliefs, and immigration of various refugee populations have diversified American values, but the greatest challenges to finding an agreement to mutual coercion are probably the ascendance of a presumptuous brand of Christianity, and a suburban solipsism whose adherents believe that the First Amendment to the Constitution and one passage in the Declaration of Independence bestow equal value to every point of view, and absolve them from the “responsibility” (sorry, Garrett) to acknowledge a superior analysis, or even a problem: “I’m sorry. I just don’t believe that.”

Hardin was writing with more than half of the oil to be pumped still in the ground, and the promise of more to be discovered. Nuclear power was a popular energy strategy, most objections to it only demanding easily understood technological solutions. I can recall public service announcements on television about overpopulation, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet was not far in the future, but Hardin was writing ahead of his time. Since then we have reached the moment of peak oil, when getting oil becomes harder and the bidding for it fiercer. The world’s population in 1968 was 3.56 billion, in 2009 it will hit 6.8 billion, almost twice 1968’s figure. Besides fuel, people are struggling with soil depletion, species extinction, climate change, and economic catastrophes with various immediate or proximate causes but which are rooted in the problem of providing for a growing population from a finite world. The situation is has become critical.

Hardin’s prescription is frightening: “Let’s surrender some of our freedoms, and punish people who won’t cooperate.” Libertarianism is basic to any American’s world view. At a tender age, we hear about laissez faire capitalism in Social Studies Class, and think, “That’s a pretty good idea.” In my generation’s religious instruction, we heard that temporal authority is hierarchical, with the authority of the state bestowed by God, and recalled that a few years before, our fathers had gone to war against an expanding empire whose fantasies moved it to torture and kill millions of its own. We know that finally each of us must decide the nature of the world and our own ways of negotiating it. Not only is Hardin asking us to surrender freedom, he’s asking for an expansion of our understandings of the world so great that it bridges a foundational notion.

As I made these notes, two alternatives to Hardin’s choice between mutual coercion and crash occurred to me. The first was that a pervasive new myth, in harmony with modern understanding of the world might spread the necessary ethic. It doesn’t seem likely, but who would have bet on Christianity two thousand years ago? The other is a hope based on Buckminster Fuller’s saying, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Will permaculture be enough, or will we have to oblige everyone to mimic and integrate with nature?

Today's illustration is a painting I did about a year ago, The Hole-in-the-Wall Miser.

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