Monday, November 9, 2009

Thoughts about "the commons"

I continue to work on the topic of early water pollution abatement efforts along Oregon's Willamette River from the 1920s to the early 1960s. I have found the "waste sink" metaphor[1] to be quite useful in my analysis and draw upon the works of Joel Tarr, Martin Melosi, Arn Keeling, and others. One of my mentors suggested that I might find the "commons" concept useful as well, so I looked in to it before defending my MA thesis in late February 2009. What follows is the fruit of my research thus far.

In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin published his article “The Tragedy of the Commons” in which he argued in favor of government controls on population growth as a way to find a non-technical solution to the overuse of earth’s finite resources. Unchecked population growth, Hardin argues, leads to the tragedy of an inevitable race among individuals, groups, and nations to exploit resources as quickly as possible, before others exhaust the resources first[2].

Since 1968, scholars have applied the concept of “the commons” to other ecological and political questions beyond the study of population growth. Some of these applications include calls for national and international governmental controls on energy consumption, resource extraction, and pollution to ensure that resources are not exhausted or despoiled. Scholars have also applied the idea of the commons to analyses of corporate governance, real estate law, intellectual property rights, telecommunications, and commerce[3].

Richard Andrews agrees with Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” metaphor as well as with Hardin’s call for top-down mechanisms to counteract resource depletion through the cumulative impacts of individual choices. Andrews applies Hardin’s concept in an analysis of environmental policy in the U.S. and expands upon Hardin’s brief discussion of pollution issues as part of the commons. Andrews also focuses on economic incentives that spurred sharp increases in oil production, salmon harvest in Alaska, and agricultural production in the first decades of the twentieth century[4].

Historian Joseph Taylor, on the other hand, is critical of the use of “the commons” metaphor in his study of the Pacific Northwest salmon fisheries crisis of the twentieth century. Taylor finds that the story of the salmon industry does follow the basic outline of fishing interests spurred to harvest more fish before their competitors did. However, he asserts that the metaphor is overly simplistic in that it ignores the importance of social barriers and power relations in determining access to the resource. These factors provide more useful insights into the history of environmental management, Taylor concludes[5].

Hardin does apply his metaphor of the commons specifically to pollution. He finds the metaphor of the commons applicable to pollution in a “reverse way” in that it involves the exhaustion of the resources of land and clean air and water through the addition of sewage, chemicals, radioactive materials, and other pollutants, rather than through extraction. He ties this misuse of the commons directly to excessive population growth that overloads the ability of natural systems to assimilate and diffuse wastes[6].

To date, no scholar has systematically applied the concept of "the commons" to environmental history, let alone to an analysis of North American pollution management approaches in the twentieth century.

The primary issues I find with the commons metaphor as applied to twentieth-century water pollution in North America:

1) The concept had relevance to Medieval Europe, but does it have relevance to nineteenth and twentieth century North America? Andrews notes that Hardin’s example of shepherds overusing the commons is not an accurate representation of the process of historical change in Medieval England. Instead, Andrews finds that what really happened was the upper classes took over the commons for their own exploitative purposes during the early shift from a mercantile to a capitalist system. As part of this takeover and within the new capitalist system, these landowners then raced one another to exploit resources first. Therefore, "the commons" were no longer common by the time they became exploited.

2) If applicable at all, the idea of the commons applies only in the most general way to my study. Hardin’s 1968 article is from a conference talk, and seems useful as a thought experiment, but he approaches the topic from a rather broad philosophical perspective. Hardin doesn't seem to have followed this conference presentation with any further articles, chapters, or books, which means he didn't elaborate the idea at all. The metaphor has subsequently been applied by other scholars, but only in a general way. Those scholars who have applied it in specific instances have largely focused on economics, law, and communications, not on environmental management or pollution. Even Andrews, who does apply the metaphor in environmental management, applies it in four cases that show depletion of an extracted resource, rather than despoiling of air, water, or land.

3) After conducting research sufficient to produce a 175-page thesis and two conference presentations, I still have only found sporadic and general reference by the historical participants themselves to a sentiment that could be characterized as falling generally under the umbrella of "the commons," as Hardin presents it. [I am still keeping my eyes peeled, however. Many pollution abatement advocates in the Izaak Walton League and other sports organizations speak in terms of preserving untrammeled areas for sports and recreation, but I haven't found anything that suggests they correlated this with "the commons."]

4) It seems to me that perceiving rivers and streams as shared resources does not necessarily equate to the idea that the people themselves thought of it in terms of "the commons." I fear that applying Hardin's idea of the commons might be anachronistic.

[1] One straightforward definition of this metaphor is that "there are few places that pollution can go: into the air, water, or land. Historically, the pollution "sink" was merely shifted from one place to another to solve a particular problem, but as Tarr points out the shift often caused other problems. Waste that was once put into the land was dumped into water bodies. Pollutants that were once pumped into the air are now put into the land. Industrial wastes that were once
dumped into waterways are now injected into the land. With each change of the "sink," a new population was affected by pollution." See Melissa G. Wiedenfeld's H-Net review of this book, March 4, 1998.

[2] Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162: 3859 (Dec. 13, 1968), 1243-1248.

[3] R. S. Deese, “A Metaphor at Midlife: ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ Turns 40,” Endeavour 32: 4 (Sept. 9, 2008), 152-155; Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer, Green Backlash: The History and Politics of Environmental Opposition in the U.S. (Boulder, Colo., Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1997), esp. 39-41.

[4] Richard N. Andrews, Managing the Environment, Managing Ourselves: A History of American Environmental Policy (2nd ed.) (New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2006), 3, 9, 158-161, 318.

[5] Joseph E. Taylor, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle, Wash., University of Washington Press, 1999), esp. 10-12.

[6] Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162: 3859 (Dec. 13, 1968), 1245.


1 comment: