Climate Change and the Tragedy of the Commons.

Garrett Hardin was a professor of Biology in Santa Barbara, California. In June 1968 he delivered a presidential address before the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The lecture was on the future of nuclear war – drawing the conclusion that: “It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great powers continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation.” A few months later, he  expanded on this topic in an article in Science titled, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It became an almost instantaneous hit and an effective lasting teaching material. Googling the title today produces more than 400,000 hits. Combining it with “Climate Change” results in 85,000 hits. I use it regularly in classes on environmental issues and in talks on Climate Change.

Two paragraphs from the paper are sufficient to demonstrate the connection:

The class of “no technical solution problems” has members. My thesis is that the “population problem,” as conventionally conceived, is a member of this class. How it is conventionally conceived needs some comment. It is fair to say that most people who anguish over the population problem are trying to find a way to avoid the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing any of the privileges they now enjoy. They think that farming the seas or developing new strains of wheat will solve the problem-­technologically. I try to show here that the solution they seek cannot be found. The population problem cannot be solved in a technical way, any more than can the problem of winning the game of tick-tack-toe. In reaching this conclusion, I have made the usual assumption that it is the acquisition of energy that is the problem. The appearance of atomic energy has led some to question this assumption. However, given an infinite source of energy, population growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation… The arithmetic signs in the analysis are, as it were, reversed; but Bentham’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. The goal is still unobtainable.

The National Parks present another instance of the working out of the tragedy of the commons. At present, they are open to all, without limit. The parks themselves are limited in extent–there is only one Yosemite Valley–whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the parks as commons or they will be of no value anyone. (Hardin, G.  Science 162, 3859 (1968))

It doesn’t take a fertile imagination to extend the concept of the National Parks to the Planet as a whole. It is a bit more complicated to show that the “common pasture” issue,  so central now in game theory to debate a winning strategy that will benefit all the owners without harming the individual players, is equivalent to the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) phenomena that is a major challenge in addressing all environmental issues, including climate change. The NIMBY challenge, in the context of climate change will be addressed in future blogs.

Hardin’s world was different than ours. The world’s population was approximately half the present population (7 billion in October 2011) and systematic measurements of man’s contributions to changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere and the resulting changes in the energy balance with the Sun, were just begining. We were in the middle of the Cold War, less than one generation removed from Hiroshima and Nagasaki with MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) as the dominant theory to prevent global suicide.

Science was connected to all of this only through attempts to design better destruction tools- not to solve any problems. This was the time that followed C.P. Snow’s  1959 publication of “The Two Cultures” (C.P.Snow,  The Two Cultures. London: Cambridge University Press (2001)). This small book that has recently emerged as one of the most influential books since WWII has made the point that one of the “cultures” is scientists and the other one is everybody else and that they don’t know how to talk to each other. This small book, like Hardin’s paper, came out also of a lecture (in Cambridge University).

What I understand in Hardin’s “no technical solution” is something that science can not solve. Both Hardin and Snow were scientists, although with broader interests, that have tried to build some bridges. Snow was advocating developing a common language. Hardin, in my view, was desperate and believed that if there are no “technical solutions” there are no solutions. Natural Science and Social Science in their time were separate. They are still separate in most universities, but as I have tried to show in the previous blog, Climate Change is forcing us to recognize that they are not separate any more. Building bridges now is not only the right thing to do but it is essential.

More about this – next week.





About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
This entry was posted in Climate Change and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Climate Change and the Tragedy of the Commons.

  1. We’re a gaggle of volunteers and starting a brand new scheme in our community.
    Your web site provided us with useful information to work on. You have done an impressive task and our entire neighborhood will be thankful to you.

  2. Do you mind if I quote a few of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources back to your webpage?
    My blog site is in the very same niche as yours and
    my users would really benefit from some of the information you provide here.
    Please let me know if this ok with you. Cheers!

  3. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be
    honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back later. All the best

  4. Good day! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted
    to give a quick shout out and tell you I truly enjoy reading through your articles.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums
    that deal with the same subjects? Appreciate it!

  5. Tremendous issues here. I’m very satisfied to see your post. Thank you a lot and I am taking a look ahead to contact you. Will you please drop me a e-mail?

  6. Pingback: Climate Change as a Bridge Maker | ClimateChangeFork

  7. Pingback: From a Competition for Doing Nothing to a Competition for Doing Our Best: From NIMBY to the Olympics. | ClimateChangeFork

  8. David Ross says:

    Congratulations Prof. Tomkiewicz on the launch of your blog. I am what you have no shame in calling a global warming “denier” (but skeptical of catastrophic man-made warming would be more accurate).

    I came here to your site via a commenters link on WUWT.

    There are many scientific reasons (which I can elaborate on in another thread) that make me doubtful of CAGW (catastrophic anthropogenic global warming) but often it is the character and agenda of many of its supporters that add to my suspicion.

    I do not include you in this category. You seem sincere in your convictions and well qualified to argue them. However, it is unfortunate that you used your tragic family history (in other posts -and you have my sympathy) to bolster your case.

    It is unfortunate because the main concern of many of the supporters of CAGW seems to be overpopulation and this often manifests itself in a callous disregard for human life that is worryingly reminiscent of National Socialism.

    To give one specific example. You chose to quote Garrett Hardin

    Here is an excerpt from his Wikipedia page:

    “In September of 1974, he published the article “Living on a Lifeboat” in BioScience magazine, arguing that contributing food to help the Ethiopian famine would add to overpopulation, which he considered the root of Ethiopia’s problems. Despite his lifelong insistence that overpopulation must be curbed to avoid disaster, Hardin himself had four children.”

    A more authoratative source can be found here:

    “sending food to Ethiopia does more harm than good”

    I don’t think Hardin was a closet Nazi and he was writing before global warming became a major issue. But many of his contemporaries (e.g. Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren) with similar concerns promoted eugenics and went on to promote CAGW. I can substantiate on subsequent comments, if you wish to go there.

    So references to the Holocaust are perhaps relevant but not in the way you might think.

  9. Pingback: We Need to Do Some Serious Work if we want to Democratize Climate Change Decisions. | ClimateChangeFork

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *