Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Tragedy of the Commons"

NPR had a segment on "the tragedy of the commons" in late November that applies this model to the global climate change debate. This NPR segment relates to my interest in examining the idea of "the commons" within the framework of urban environmental history, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.[1]

The NPR segment applies the idea of the commons in the way that I find not entirely applicable to the urban environmental issues I am researching. The comment thread is fixated on debating the extent to which global climate change is or is not anthropogenic, but one commenter addressed the idea of "the commons" itself:

"Declaring this situation a tragedy of the commons is misleading. A commons, traditionally, is a communally managed property with regulations on how it is used. Air and water are what Patricia Marchack called 'free goods.'[2] No one can lay claim to them or readily control their use. The threat to free goods is the externalization of costs by private industry. We cannot begin to address this situation until we are willing to charge private industry for the destruction of free goods." (from Julie VanBlokland)

This statement supports my hunch that to apply Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" metaphor to contemporary urban environmental issues in North America would be anachronistic.

One of the people in the NPR interview is Richard J. Smith. He served as a diplomat and negotiator for environmental and scientific treaties in the 1980s and 1990s, and has recently written a book, Negotiating Environment and Science: An Insider's View of International Agreements, From Driftnets to the Space Station. I need to get a copy of this book to see if there's anything explicit in it regarding "the commons."

[1] Here is a link to Garrett Hardin's article that I did not have in my previous post on this topic.

[2] I think the book this comment refers to is M. Patricia Marchak, The Integrated Circus: The New Right and the Restructuring of Global Markets (Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991), reviewed here.


1 comment:

  1. Just came upon & am now in the process of reading John A. Baden and Douglas S. Noonan, eds., Managing the Commons (2nd ed.), Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998. This book provides an analysis and refinement of Hardin's essay "Tragedy of the Commons." I'll have a new post about this reading once I've finished the book.