Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nobel Prize for Economics Is a Nod to Tragedy of the Commons

By Paul K. Haeder

The term tragedy of the commons was coined by Garrett Hardin who hypothesized in 1968 that, as the size of the human population increased, there would be mounting pressures on resources at the local and global levels, leading to overexploitation and ruin. He postulated that the pressures on resources at both local and global levels would lead to overexploitation and ruin. Some in power, so called "commoners" (or users of common resources), would reap the full benefit of resource exploitation, and we see that externalities – the costs of doing building, industry, and farming in the form of pollution, extinction, displacement, and cultural death -- have been pushed on the masses in most areas of earth. Like, for example, what the cutting down of rainforests (40 percent of the earth’s oxygen comes from rainforests, which once covered 14 percent of the earth’s land but the total area is now 6 percent of earth's land) does to those who hold to the benefits and services rainforests provide. There really is no amount of money that can be placed on those goods and services nature give us. Well, maybe not:

SEE these sources and read the excerpt ---
[A landmark study released today reveals that approximately 60 percent of the ecosystem services that support life on Earth – such as fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water regulation, and the regulation of regional climate, natural hazards and pests – are being degraded or used unsustainably. Scientists warn that the harmful consequences of this degradation could grow significantly worse in the next 50 years.

“Any progress achieved in addressing the goals of poverty and hunger eradication, improved health, and environmental protection is unlikely to be sustained if most of the ecosystem services on which humanity relies continue to be degraded,” said the study, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) Synthesis Report, conducted by 1,300 experts from 95 countries. It specifically states that the ongoing degradation of ecosystem services is a road block to the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by the world leaders at the United Nations in 2000.

Although evidence remains incomplete, there is enough for the experts to warn that the ongoing degradation of 15 of the 24 ecosystem services examined is increasing the likelihood of potentially abrupt changes that will seriously affect human well-being. This includes the emergence of new diseases, sudden changes in water quality, creation of “dead zones” along the coasts, the collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate.

The MA Synthesis Report highlights four main findings:

Humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively in the last 50 years than in any other period. This was done largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. More land was converted to cropland in the 30 years after 1950 than in the 150 years between 1700 and 1850.[*] More than half of all the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, first made in 1913, ever used on the planet has been used since 1985. Experts say that this resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in diversity of life on Earth, with some 10 to 30 percent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species currently threatened with extinction.

Ecosystem changes that have contributed substantial net gains in human well-being and economic development have been achieved at growing costs in the form of degradation of other services. Only four ecosystem services have been enhanced in the last 50 years: increases in crop, livestock and aquaculture production, and increased carbon sequestration for global climate regulation. Two services – capture fisheries and fresh water – are now well beyond levels that can sustain current, much less future, demands. Experts say that these problems will substantially diminish the benefits for future generations.

The degradation of ecosystem services could grow significantly worse during the first half of this century and is a barrier to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals. In all the four plausible futures explored by the scientists, they project progress in eliminating hunger, but at far slower rates than needed to halve number of people suffering from hunger by 2015. Experts warn that changes in ecosystems such as deforestation influence the abundance of human pathogens such as malaria and cholera, as well as the risk of emergence of new diseases. Malaria, for example, accounts for 11 percent of the disease burden in Africa and had it been eliminated 35 years ago, the continent’s gross domestic product would have increased by $100 billion.

The challenge of reversing the degradation of ecosystems while meeting increasing demands can be met under some scenarios involving significant policy and institutional changes. However, these changes will be large and are not currently under way. The report mentions options that exist to conserve or enhance ecosystem services that reduce negative trade-offs or that will positively impact other services. Protection of natural forests, for example, not only conserves wildlife but also supplies fresh water and reduces carbon emissions. ]
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So these exploiters incur only a small cost, while others would have to share the costs but receive none of the benefits. Examples of overexploitation are grazing, fishing, and logging, where grasslands, fish stocks, and trees have declined big time from overuse. That’s 42 years ago, and Hardin saw the writing on the wall -- suggesting that governmental intervention and laws might be become the major method of solving such overexploitation. More recently, the concept of the commons has been expanded to include air, water, the Internet, and medical care.

Okay, so we have Garret Hardin’s 1968 "The Tragedy of the Commons" published in Science 162:12–13. Find it on -- http://dieoff.org/page95.htm.

Now we have a Nobel Prize in economics given to Elinor Ostrom, who has been looking at the commons and the tragedy of mismanaged resources being stopped at another level – within the local jurisdictions rather than the federal level or international bodies working to help manage or reclaim resources, habitats, ecologies.

Ostrom, a professor of political science, was recognized for her work demonstrating how common property, such as forests, can be successfully managed by those who use the resources, rather than government officials. The award was a "great surprise ... I'm still a little bit in shock," Ostrom said by phone at the news conference announcing the prize. Ostrom told reporters later Monday that she was particularly proud to be the first woman to win the economics award. She said that when she decided to get her Ph.D. in the mid-1960s, she was warned no major university would even think about hiring a woman, and that she was grateful that Indiana University had bucked expectations to give her a job.

"I appreciate this is an honor to be the first woman, but I won't be the last," she said. The committee said Ostrom's research shows that local communities often manage common resources better on their own than when outside authorities impose rules.

"Bureaucrats sometimes do not have the correct information, while citizens and users of resources do," Ostrom said. Ostrom's award was perhaps more of a shock to economists because of her academic background in political science than because of her gender. Some economists said they had little or no knowledge about her work.

So, 31 years after human ecologist Garrett Hardin's essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," asserted that ultimately, users of a common resource harvest collective ruin, Ostrom and three other scholars have re-examined the dilemma of common-pool resources (CPR) in Science magazine.

"In the end, building from the lessons of past successes will require forms of communication, information and trust that are broad and deep beyond precedent, but not beyond possibility," writes Indiana University's Ostrom.

"Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges" is the work of Ostrom, the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of political science, co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population and Environmental Change at IUB. Her collaborators are Joanna Burger of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute at Rutgers; Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution; Richard Norgaard of the Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley; and David Policansky of the National Research Council.

Her look at contemporary environmental problems brings up "past successes" in order to try and understand the problems associated with CPR management. Deforestation, depletion of fishing grounds and degradation of air quality are realities, and environmental accomplishments seem few and far in between.

Ostrom and her co-authors see many CPR users coming together to forge solutions rather than waiting for governments or other institutions to impose regulations. The authors stress that one of the most important lessons learned from empirical studies of sustainable resources is that more solutions exist than those Hardin proposed.

"Hardin's work was originally understood to say that unless you have private ownership of resources or government control of them, environmental tragedy is inevitable," Ostrom explained. "That was an overstatement. There are situations where that does apply, but it is limited. It applies to situations where there is so much distrust, and communication is so costly, and people see so little benefit to solving environmental problems that they are, effectively, trapped."

We are in an age of population explosion and those feedback loops, or the huge negative effects from climate change and a new taste for more stuff and more consumption being sought after by emerging economies and more and more privileged individuals in G20 countries. China and India are looking for ecological (resource) footprints that come closer and closer to an American footprint.-
See ecological footprint data and take the quiz at http://www.myfootprint.org/. So the Nobel Committee gave this little-known economist the Prize for economics for her work in trying to understand how different societies and groups have managed a common pool of resources allows us to apply successful methods in managing these resources.

She’s the first woman to have received a Nobel Prize in economics.

The commons -- as our community, county, state, regional and national lands and those resources on them are called – have everything to do with sustainability, climate change, resource planning, and the field of planning in general. Laws, zoning regulations, the value of land as open space, carbon sink, agricultural benefit, and the attending issues of sprawl, density, smart growth, new urbanism, no growth, all of these, tie into Ostrom’s and Hardin’s work.

She might have shaken the world of economists with her win; however, maybe her work on the commons is already being overtaken by the facts that coral reefs are dying, the oceans are becoming acidified, island are being inundated with sea water rise, coasts are crumbling, icecaps are melting.
These are commons, or a common ecosystem’s systems breakdown that need to be attended to by international agreements. Overharvesting of fish has to be stopped, and regulated. Her work might be yet another aside, aberration, maybe something that is radical for economists to consider, but in sustainability, we have superseded the economist’s sway over us – society – and ecosystems and the other needs of a world made up of human species and millions of other species.

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