[Coral-List] tragedy of the commons - and other aspects of population

David Glassom Glassom at ukzn.ac.za
Tue Jul 23 10:23:47 UTC 2019

Dear Coral Listers,

I am not sure why the discussion on population has become focused on a paper written 50 years ago and that was flawed even at the time.  As Clive Wilkinson writes, perhaps we should not dismiss Garrett Hardin's 'Tragedy of the Commons' out of hand.  But we should also not accept it uncritically, especially 50 years and much new knowledge later.

A couple of points:
- Hardin himself later acknowledged that he should have called the paper 'The Tragedy of UNREGULATED Commons' writing that "A managed commons, though it may have other defects, is not automatically subject to the tragic fate of the unmanaged commons".
- Hardin's other writing reveals a somewhat ideological stance underlying his work.  In the article 'Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor' he writes that "a policy of one mouth one meal leads to one totally miserable world".  Elsewhere he considered that rich nations should isolate themselves from the poor, writing that "It is unlikely that civilization and dignity can survive everywhere; but better in a few places than in none. Fortunate minorities act as the trustees of a civilization that is threatened by uninformed good intentions".  I hope that these sentiments would be repudiated by most coral listers today.

Ideology aside, Hardin did not have access to much of the demographic information that is available today.  Mainly it is well established that fertility rates go down in proportion to increasing womens' education, and womens' financial security and independence.  This trend cuts across religions and cultures globally.  The best way to reduce population growth, in contrast to what Hardin believed, is to help the poor.  Hardin also did not see the appropriation of the global atmospheric commons, largely to benefit the wealthy, or the similar appropriation of the global information commons to benefit those with access to the benefit of digital technology.  He did not see the successful regulation, admittedly to varying degrees, of global commons such as the ban on CFCs, the establishment of international commissions on tuna fishing and whaling, trans-boundary marine reserves or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). So we shouldn't take his article at face value.

Everything that Hardin wrote has been re-stated, often in better ways, and debated many times in the 50 years since he wrote his seminal article.   I suggest watching the talk 'Arithmetic, Population and Energy' by Alfred Bartlett (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sI1C9DyIi_8).  To learn about changing fertility patterns, some of the TED talks by the late Hans Rosling are enlightening. Articles such as Charles Sheppard's 'Famines food and ponzi fisheries' are similarly worth reading for the opposite view.

Population growth and population size are major issues in environmental sustainability.  So is consumption.  Clearly neither continued population growth, nor continued economic growth are sustainable.  Global economic policies that allow some of use maintain our levels of consumption are also partially responsible for keeping others from attaining the levels of education and financial security that invariably lead to declining fertility (of course local factors also play a major role). In that sense,  consumption and population are not separate problems but are closely linked. They both need to be openly and vigorously discussed and acted on.  But they cannot be considered or tackled in isolation. Reducing the issue to 'them or us' as seems to be happening is extremely unhelpful.  Let's get past it.

David Glassom

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