Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons, First Section

I’ve been taking pictures, trying to catch a sense of the urgency of the population problem, to find visual images that illustrate Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons. One day, I drove to the far edges of suburban sprawl and saw with my eye what I wanted to show, but not with my camera. There the problem was that the landscape was a patchwork of development devastating the countryside, an atmosphere whose appeal is undeniable, even so, evidenced by the expense and inconvenience many commit to living in it. Another day, I went to downtown Minneapolis, where there is an uninterrupted built environment, little of nature’s hand, and starker evidence of human habitation. It looked cold to me, but my prejudice is that urban density is a better strategy for housing a population that’s too large. Besides that, I found the city made for more interesting pictures. I thought of De Chirico’s paintings, and especially of the films of Michaelangelo Antonioni, particularly L’Eclisse. In L’Eclisse, the modern Roman settings represent a world that traps the characters, and thwarts what is good and joyous in them, but Antonioni's Rome is heartbreakingly beautiful.

Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay, The Tragedy of the Commons begins by raising the possibility of a class of problems without technical solutions. Hardin uses the example of the game of tick-tack-toe to show that the class of problems without technical solutions is not a “null class.”

(In tick-tack-toe, “X” gives “O” the slightest chance of winning by playing a corner. “O” answers a corner opening with a center mark, a center opening with a corner mark, and an edge opening with a corner, or the center. Both players proceed from the opening according to a list of eight priorities. If nobody makes a mistake, the game ends in a draw. Simple computers are unbeatable, and Sam and I had our heads handed to us, for a quarter a game, by a chicken at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City. Tick-tack-toe has no technical solution.)

The population problem as conventionally conceived is a member of the class without technical solution. People who consider the problem of overpopulation often imagine that the world’s carrying capacity can be increased technologically. Hardin says no. Population increases geometrically or exponentially, while production increases arithmetically. (He’s quoting Thomas Malthus.) In a finite world, per capita share of the world’s goods must decrease. The Earth is practically finite, and a finite world can only support a finite population.

So... Population growth must eventually stop. Hardin asks can we achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, and answers no.

Mathematically, he says it is impossible to maximize for more than one variable at once, so we can only maximize population by limiting welfare. He says we need about 1600 maintenance calories a day. If we farm, operate jackhammers, or read cheap novels, we need additional calories. Culture goes out the window.

Writing a decade before the Three Mile Island meltdown, Hardin considered the possibility of an infinite source of energy. He says that this would replace the problem of acquisition with the problem of dissipation. (Couldn’t we just make energy until we need glasses?)

He says that our optimum population is less than our maximum population. What is optimum? He said it would take “generations of hard analytical work, and much persuasion” to answer that question.

What is the maximum good per person? It’s hard to say because people want different things. Incommensurables can’t be compared, but in real life, Hardin says, there are no incommensurables. Natural selection commensurates the incommensurable, using survival as the criterion. “Man must imitate this process.”

We do, but unconsciously. “Explicit decisions make controversy.” “The problem for the years ahead is to work out an acceptable theory of weighing.” We know we still need to do this because there isn’t a prosperous population on the planet that has had a growth rate of zero for a significant time.

(The problem with unconsciously commensurating the incommensurable is that it happens too slowly for individual lives, or our current crisis. This essay is half a lifetime old.)

Here’s the part that will piss a lot of people off. Hardin says that “We must exorcise” belief in Adam Smith’s (1776) notion that an individual who “ ‘intends only his own gain’ ” is “ ‘led by an invisible hand to promote...the public interest.’ ” If Smith -- and our interpretation of Smith -- is correct, Hardin says, we can trust people to limit our population. If the idea of the “invisible hand” isn’t correct, we need to “examine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.”

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