The notion of “the commons”

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The notion of “the commons”.

Most people are not familiar with the theoretical concept of the commons, as popularized (at least among environmentalists) by Garrett Hardin in his widely-cited discussion on global population (The Tragedy of the Commons 1968).  His very brief abstract states, in its entirety: “The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality.” That’s it. I’ve never seen another abstract so short in a scientific article. Yet this paper has been cited by others almost 45,000 times!

The concept of the commons has been around for a long time (Aristotle mentioned it) and has been brought to the forefront by a number of national and global issues. 

Consider air pollution.  Polluted air doesn’t remain over the state or country it originated in.  It eventually traverses the entire world.  Who is responsible for cleaning up this pollution?  We all breathe the same atmosphere.  It is a common resource shared by all on this planet. 

The ocean is another common resource shared by all countries with a coastline.  Overfishing a particular species by one country affects all national fishing industries.  Tuna can cross maritime economic zones managed by different countries.  Who has the right to control the fishing of Tuna?  Migratory fish are a common resource.  

Migratory game birds can fly across continents, visiting many countries along their route.  Who has the right to shoot these birds?  Elimination of suitable habitat in one country may affect the population of a bird species in all of the countries the bird migrates through.  Destruction of the nesting grounds of a migrating bird species can lead to its extinction. Migratory game birds are a common resource.

Much closer to home we have the example of deer.  Perhaps you live in the countryside with land.  The deer that crosses your private property – is it yours to hunt?  Is it your neighbors?  Does it belong to the state?  (Has anyone ever asked the deer what it thought about being hunted?)

Most recently, and by far the largest discussion of the commons – though the word commons is not frequently used, is the topic of global climate change.  We are all affecting the global concentration of carbon dioxide – we exhale it.  Individual countries add CO2 to the atmosphere in different amounts, depending on their level of industrial uses (fuel) or biomass burning (e.g. burning Amazonian forests in Brazil).  But we are all experiencing the increase in global temperature from the increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.  The entire atmosphere is a commons, shared by all.

There are many other examples of the commons.  Close our eyes – wherever we are – and listen.  Can we hear anything?  Certainly all of us living in cities can.  Perhaps if the sound insulation in our house is sufficiently good and we are up very late at night we can’t hear much.  But if we sit outside and listen we will always hear noise.  Noise is unwanted sound. Most of it is generated, not by natural processes like the wind rustling leaves on a tree or birds calling, but by human sources.  Most noise we hear will be from cars (background traffic noise) and airplanes overhead.  Among the traffic noise there will be certain vehicles (e.g. motorcycles, big pick-ups, sports cars) that are so loud that they can be detected amongst the background traffic din.  Their noise is affecting your personal environment. You cannot escape, in your backyard, the noise they generate on a nearby street. The atmosphere and the noise it propagates is a common space for all.  Should people driving these noisy vehicles have a right to make your personal space unpleasant?  Just what is your personal space? This is the challenge of any “commons”.  Is your neighbor’s barking dog an invasion of your personal space? What about the noisy children next door?

We all contribute to noisy environments. If we enter a crowded restaurant or bar we have to speak louder to be heard. But everyone else is also doing this. There is an unintentional competition among all patrons to talk loud enough to be heard. We return home with a sore throat from talking so loud – and wonder why.

Light pollution is another example of the commons.  Suppose our city puts up a series of bright streetlights in our neighborhood.  The light from these will brighten our neighborhood, but we will not be able to see the stars at night as easily as before.  The light spreads over a large area – and in fact can be seen from miles away if the land is flat and treeless.  The commons – the dark night sky, has been “spoiled” by the lights.  Their effect is felt over a much wider area than just our neighborhood. Yet who complains – and to whom should they complain? We all contribute to it, though some much more than others.

The importance of understanding and appreciating the concept of the commons cannot be overstated. Individuals who claim to favor greater personal freedom (often Republicans in the US today) are likely to feel that the commons is a less-important concept as it favors constraints on personal actions and freedoms. Those who view that society should have stronger social or environmental constraints on individual behavior (e.g. stronger ordinances controlling noise, light, or air pollution) for “the greater good” tend to be mostly Democrats in the US today. These generalizations can change with time and are not hard-and-fast rules, but the philosophical differences between major political parties in many countries often can be traced to how these groups value the concept of “the commons“.