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I continue the series on the Tragedy of the Commons, based on my recent paper in the journal Sustainability.

Two users, in a meadow...

Two users, in a meadow…

A tragedy of the commons (TOC) is initiated when one or more users of a common, and unmanaged, resource increases its use of the resource. Because the resource is a commons, all the benefits of increased use accrue to that user alone but the cost to the resource is shared by all users. According to Hardin’s argument, other users are then compelled to increase their own use, presumably to maintain their levels of benefit. This argument is generally accepted by TOC studies, whether they are for or against Hardin’s suggestions of the frequency of TOC or his suggested solutions. If one takes a historical view of any particular TOC, however, then there must have been a point when total utilization by all the users was below the level of resource available and the amount being produced (remember, the resource is renewable!). The question then arises, why, if one user’s increased utilization does not affect your own benefit because of the plenitude of the resource, would you feel compelled to increase your own utilization? There are assuredly multiple, non-exclusive answers, including the ability of humans to forecast situations. In that case, you could perceive a future limitation of your own benefits, or potential for growth, and therefore engage in a somewhat competitive escalation of resource use. No matter, because benefits are still accrued by yourself only, while costs are distributed among all the users. This perceived, or indirect cost can be measured in terms of the developing model (see previous post) as
c_{i}(t) = \frac{1}{N} \left [ R(t) - R(t+1)\right ]
where c is the average cost to each user. Any reduction of the standing resource available is a positive cost, while increases are negative costs. A stable resource level means that no cost is incurred by any users. I illustrate the situation with the following cartoons:
One user increases his use of the meadow. The grey around the goats represents resource destruction or degradation.

One user increases his use of the meadow. The grey around the goats represents resource destruction or degradation.


The other user increases his own herd in response, further degrading the resource. Note, however, that there is still plenty of meadow available for herd expansion.

The other user increases his own herd in response, further degrading the resource. Note, however, that there is still plenty of meadow available for herd expansion.

The situation changes significantly when total resource utilization reaches a point where individual user benefits cease to grow and actually begin to decline. Then, users are indeed compelled to increase use simply in order to maintain their current benefit. That is the classic TOC, but it leaves wanting the explanation for escalation of use prior to that point. I’ll take this up in the next post.

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