Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tragedy of the Commons (revisited)

Garrett Hardin wrote The Tragedy of the Commons in 1968.  He was writing primarily about unbridled population growth.  The following is excerpted from that article because it is so deeply buried in the article.  Significant snipping used by ERJ:

We (will) call it "the tragedy of the commons," using the word "tragedy" as the philosopher Whitehead used it (7): "The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things."
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.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.
 1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
 2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of 1 (ERJ note:  If there are 50 cattle on the common at the time of the decision, then the negative component will be -1/50 or -2%)
Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. (ERJ note:  Or adding the 51st animal would result in a net gain of 0.98 to the decisionmaker)  And another; and another... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. 

Conscience Is Self-Eliminating

 ---End Excerpt---

Another item in the news is that Karl Denninger is pulling the plug on his blog.  He is the editor of The Market Ticker.  He lists many reasons why he is pulling the plug, but they appear to be many manifestations of The Tragedy of the Commons, where the commons is not a plot of pasture but, rather, the US economy and the herdsmen are Government bureaucrats.  


The first European settlers in North America were able to act as if forests, the fish and game, and the fertile soil were an unlimited resources.  Those resources were vast and the settlers were few.

Franklin Stove.  Picture from here.

In time, it became apparent that the resources were not unlimited.  Benjamin Franklin invented the Franklin Stove in response to a firewood shortage in Philadelphia in the 1740s.

Advocates of Big Government view the Economy in the same way that the first Europeans viewed the shores of an infinite stage upon which they are actors with the moral imperative to subdue it.

Like the herdsmen, advocates of Big Government are not a monolithic entity.  Rather, they are a disorganized hodge-podge of agenda driven actors.  

The math behind their decision making is the same math that makes the overgrazing of the commons inevitable.  

So, what does an overgrazed pasture look like?

Glad you asked.  All examples from Eaton County, Michigan.  Photographed October 2, 2013.

Contestant Number One
Contestant Number One is a poster child for overgrazing.  Ground is dominated by sub-soil, rocks and gullies.  Lush hay field in background indicates that this ground was capable of growing 6000 pounds of dry matter per growing season...before it was degraded.  It probably produces less than 300 pounds per acre now.  Ironically, this property is owned by a family who sell animals that consistently win blue ribbons at the county fair.

From the standpoint of gross productivity  this patch of ground has been reduced to a virtual moonscape.

Contestant Number Two
Contestant Number Two yields more metaphors than edible dry matter.  It looks productive, but the dominant plant species are Canadian Thistle and Jimson Weed.  

Canadian Thistle's has multiple competitive advantages.  It spreads readily by rhizome (root) and via massive numbers of seeds.  The seed can blow for miles before settling down to await developments.  It is a copious producer of thorns that puncture with great gusto and frequency.

Jimson Weed is toxic.  Not only is it poisonous, it seems to revel in the fact, being foul of odor and bitter of taste.

So an overgrazed pasture can look productive, but in fact be dominated by species that puncture, cut, maim and poison with gleeful abandon.

Contestant Number Three
Contestant Number Three receives my vote for "Best metaphor for the US Economy".

The short pale green grass in the background appears productive.  It is bluegrass that has been clipped as short as the grass of a golf green.  While it may appear productive, it has no resilience.  The roots are as short as the blades of grass and this grass will turn brown and go dormant at the first whiff of a dry spell.

In the foreground Milkweed (toxic and bitter), Canadian Thistle (the curse is everywhere) are in the process of overtaking the canopy.  Off camera various portions of this pasture are being taken over by Jimson Weed and Elderberry (toxic).

How to heal overgrazing

Overgrazing is misnamed.  Overgrazing is a two-fold issue:  Too little time for recovery between haircuts and un-equal application of canopy removal.

Like the very short grass shown in Contestant number Three, short blades of grass equate to short roots.  Short roots cannot mine the soil moisture nor the plant nutrients in the soil.  Consequently those plants produce little.  Allowing more time between hair cuts allows the blades of grass to grow longer, push down deeper roots, store up reserves so the plant can quickly rebound after the hair cut.

The second part of overgrazing is allowing the grazing animals too much time to select their dinner.  They over harvest the nutritious, palatable species (honest businessmen and tax payers) while avoiding the less palatable species (the toxic and painful).

The solution is to leave the pasture alone until it is ready to harvest.  Pulse the harvest by placing a large number of hungry animals on the pasture for a short time.  They will harvest with minimal "preferential treatment".  Once a year, or so, mow the pasture with mechanical means to ensure that "preferential treatment" that is inevitable gets redressed.

A final option to ensure that the most productive elements are favored is to wick apply a contact herbicide like Round-up.  Set the wick high enough so it brushes the tops of the Canadian Thistle and Jimson Weeds but passes over the clover and palatable grasses.

Farmer Dennis

I was riding a combine with neighbor many years ago.  I commented that I had deep admiration for how the Desgrange family exercised stewardship over the land they farmed.

I asked the farmer next to me, "Why don' all farmers treat their land as well as the Desgranges?"

His response went to the jugular of the matter.

"They own it."

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