The Tragedy of the Commons on Georges Bank, and Elsewhere
In the Massachusetts State Capitol there is a wooden statue of the Sacred Cod, a tribute to the massive fishing ground called Georges Bank. For 200 years codfish from Georges Bank have enriched New England. Now, says the Northeast Fisheries Center, the cod population of Georges Bank is collapsing.
This unnecessary tragedy-in-the-making is directly parallel to other unnecessary tragedies, like ozone holes and national debts, greenhouse effects and urban air pollution. All of them are examples of the Tragedy of the Commons.
Every environmental science course teaches the Tragedy of the Commons. The biologist Garrett Hardin first described the common grazing area in the middle of a village, where everyone was free to pasture a cow. Since the grazing was free, it was to everyone's interest to graze TWO cows. Or THREE. If there were no constraints, soon there would be so many cows that the grass would be destroyed. Then the commons would support no cows at all.
In the long term, of course, it makes sense to limit the cows and preserve the commons -- the solution that Hardin calls "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon". It's easy enough to see with cows.
It's easy to see with fish, too. A Norwegian student of mine rushed home to tell his father, a commercial fisherman, about the impending Tragedy of the Commons off the shores of Norway. "Of course," replied the father calmly. "In a few years there will be no more fish. We all know that. But by then I will have paid off my boat."
Everyone knows. But everyone is rewarded in the short term for overloading the commons, and no one likes mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.
Two out of every three cod in Georges Bank perished last year, mostly in the nets of fishermen. The catch was the highest on record, and it took a record number of fishing days to harvest it. Surveys show few young fish coming along to restore the population.
The Northeast Fisheries Center says there is only way to prevent the cod from going the way of the haddock (which crashed in the early 1980s and has not recovered), or the way of the thirteen other major world fisheries (out of nineteen) that have collapsed. The solution is to cut the catch in half until the population can restore itself. Either the fishermen cut back now, or nature will force a cutback in another few years.
The director of the New England Fisheries Management Council -- which was set up to protect Georges Bank after the U.S. got rid of international competitors by declaring a 200-mile limit -- refuses to consider catch limits. He says the industry's current fish size and mesh size limits will suffice. "There isn't any doubt that stocks are in bad condition," he admits. "Nobody denies that." But he doesn't believe the fishery will collapse.
In environmental science classes we play a simulation game, in which students manage competing fishing fleets. They are charged realistically for boats, for fishing expenses, for keeping boats idle in port. They're paid for the fish they catch. A small computer program calculates the reproduction and growth of the fish population. The players don't know the actual fish numbers, any more than real fishermen do, except by the evidence of their catch.
The players inevitably destroy the fishery -- even after they have discussed the Tragedy of the Commons.
The largest catches, the greatest number of boats, the longest fishing hours always come just as the fish population begins to turn down. The players are usually arguing about when the crash will occur as they send out the boats that will cause it. After the inevitable round of bankruptcies, the depleted fishery supports only one-tenth to one-third as many boats as it could have, sustainably, forever, if it had not been overfished.
If you wonder how fishermen could be so stupid, consider the willingness of industry to limit emissions that cause the pollution of common air and the acidification of common rain. Consider the fact that Americans have voted in three consecutive elections not to be taxed, but to spend for common purposes and let debt pile up -- meanwhile discussing endlessly when the crash will come. Watch communities refuse to put limits on developments that destroy the common amenities that attracted the developments in the first place.
How would you feel about mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon, if it required you to drive a higher-mileage car or take public transportation, insulate your house properly, and in other ways stop pouring carbon dioxide into the atmospheric commons and deranging the climate of the earth?
What, limits? Requirements? Inconvenience and expense and infringement on my freedom? Why me? I'm just a small part of the problem. I have enough to worry about just making ends meet.
That's it. That's the logic of the cod fishermen, the logic of all the rational, reasonable perpetrators of the Tragedy of the Commons.
The problem of the mismanaged commons is really not hard to solve. The solution doesn't demand that we be angels. It just asks us to lift our heads from the hot pursuit of immediate gratification, lean back, look at the workings of the whole system, and sacrifice some short-term self-interest for long-term self-interest.