June 17th, 2009


the tragedy of the commons

Most people have heard the familiar phrase "the tragedy of the commons", referring to the destruction of a common resource (eg. a grazing pasture) by multiple independent, rational actors each acting in their own self-interest (eg. cattle herders). The general idea is that each cattle herder will see all the benefits of adding one more cow to his herd, but the resulting drawback (depletion of the grazing pasture) is a cost shared by all.

Although I was familiar with the phrase and the idea, I had never read the original essay that it came from. In 1968 Science magazine published Garrett Hardin's essay titled The Tragedy of the Commons, which in a rare example of electronic availability of pre-Internet content, is available online in its full form.

What I did not realise is that the article is not actually about cows. The article is about people, specifically humans, and the commons is the world in which we live. The article is about the population explosion. In 1968, the population of the world was somewhere between 3.3 and 3.7 billion. Today it is estimated to be 6.7 billion, nearly double the number of people from the time the article was written. From the conclusion of the essay:

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.

The essay suggests that the freedom to breed must be curtailed if we, as the occupiers of this finite planet, are to survive and prosper. "[I]t is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed." If you have not yet read this essay from start to finish, go do so now. It's not a quick read, but it's not something we can ignore.



Photo by kiwinz

I started listening to omega tau, a relatively new podcast from one of the guys at Software Engineering Radio. One of the earlier episodes is an interview with Pete Bethune of Earthrace, who recently broke the world time record for circumnavigation of the world in a powerboat. It's a fascinating interview and worth a listen.

After breaking the world record, the crew took Earthrace around the world to visit lots of places where they obviously couldn't stop during the record run, to let people visit and have a look around the boat. Pete Bethune is from New Zealand, so the final tour was a trip around New Zealand, with stops at dozens of coastal towns around the country, large and small.

Two months ago, Earthrace stopped in Lyttelton and Akaroa, both short drives from Christchurch. Somehow, I had totally missed this news but would really have liked to see the boat. So, I'm a bit disappointed about that. If only I had listened to that podcast earlier! Pete is now selling the boat (for US$1.5 million) so it appears the opportunity has been missed.