"Tragedy of the Commons" revisited

In 1968, Garrett Hardin wrote an influential article in the journal Science, in which he explained one of the root causes of environmental pollution.  It's still very relevant today.

Hardin described a hypothetical example from an agrarian society, such as Boston in the 1600's:  There are a number of farmers living around the Boston Commons, where they all have rights to graze their cows.  It's in the rational self-interest of each farmer to add another cow to his herd, and graze it on the Commons.  Each farmer receives all the benefit from an additional cow, but shares only a fraction of the loss if the Commons is overgrazed.  Eventually, as farmers add more and more cows, the Commons is completely overgrazed and destroyed--all are harmed.

Recognition of this failure led to the fencing of individual farms and estates in England.  When farmers have to live with all the consequences of their mismanagement, they become better stewards of the land.

But there are certain public resources that we cannot fence off for individuals to manage--the larger lakes, streams... and the air itself.   There are still some very large commons that mankind is now destroying--marine fisheries, for example.  Here whole countries are the farmers, each one putting out yet another fleet of trawlers, in a hurry to suck up the last fish, before the next country can get to them.

There is another commons bigger than the ocean, still bigger than the atmosphere itself--the climate.  This is the ultimate commons--and this tragedy described by Garrett Hardin... is the ultimate cause of global warming.  Again, each country that refuses to control its carbon emissions--is turning out another cow to graze on our climate.

The tragedy of the commons can only be solved by all the farmers getting together, and giving the sheriff power to regulate the number of cows on the commons.

What has this got to do with our greenway?

I'm glad you asked.  I was just getting to my point...

Well, Lake Mendota is the commons, and each neighbor putting fertilizer on his lawn is like the farmer sending out one more cow to graze.  But in this case, the lover of green lawns isn't getting an economic benefit.  Presumably, the man with the bag of "GreenGrow" is looking for some aesthetic benefit.  Or he wants to gain stature in his neighbor's eyes. 

Isn't the value of Lake Mendota more aesthetic than economic?  Sure, people who sell bait or boats get an economic benefit.  And of course, property values on the shore are sky-high because of the lake.  There are clear recreational values to the lake, which depend on it staying reasonably clean.  But to the vast majority of us, we just look at the lake.  Or we go to the Edgewater Hotel for a drink.... and we enjoy that experience or not, depending on how stinky the lake is.  Aesthetics.

For most people, aesthetics are rather abstract... people don't think about aesthetics, although they do buy cars based on how they look, and they do paint their houses.  People are willing to pay a lot of money for aesthetics, even though they can't say exactly what they are looking for.

As each homeowner makes a rational decision about how his property looks, as he spreads the GreenGrow on his lawn, so the lake becomes a stinking mess.  Algae blooms.  Fish die.  It's a Tragedy.

At least one of the homeowners on Upland Drive has lost about six feet of his property to erosion from the stream.  There's a yawning cliff where his lawn used to be.  So this neighbor backs the City's plan to put the stream underground in a pipe.  In the process, bulldozers would probably fill in the gulch and restore his property.  Now he'd have even more lawn behind the house than he had originally--some of it now part of the filled and graded greenway. 

So this neighbor is going to make a perfectly rational decision to put the stream underground, even though the larger aesthetic "commons" of a natural, wooded ravine will be lost.  As Liz McBride said, who lives a block from the Greenway: "The hawk that lives in the greenway is my hawk, too.  Sometimes it sits in my tree. If you cut the trees in the greenway, he'll be gone." 

This hawk is part of our "aesthetic commons."  But right now, the "aesthetic rights" of one man--to have six feet more of green grass at the back end of his yard--trumps the rights of 100 people to see the hawk sit in their tree.   ...Trumps the rights of the hawk itself.

It's a question of incentives.  We need to design motivations for the public to care for the commons.    Right now, Dane County is trying to establish new rules with a point system to motivate people who live within 1,000 feet of lakes and streams to manage their property in a way that's healthy for our waterways.  But business groups are fighting it, saying that "Dane County wants to take away your property rights."  Dane County wants to take away your right to graze another cow on the commons.  Good for Dane County!

Madison has one incentive on the books:  Part of your water bill is a charge for stormwater--it's based on the square feet of impervious surfaces on your property--surfaces that generate stormwater runoff.   I spoke to the city employee who administers that program the other day.  He said "you should see the complaints I get every time those bills go out."   We should be encouraging more of this sort of thing, rather than complaining.

We also need positive incentives.  When you plant a rain garden on your terrace, the city will share part of the cost.  "Cost sharing" already happens with the lateral sewers from each house.  But suppose we need a stormwater retention basin on Sunset Village Creek where it runs open at the park?  Some neighbors on that street might object--because to them the dam might be an eyesore.  (The basin itself would fill only during a cloudburst, so the stream wouldn't change.)  Perhaps these neighbors should be compensated for their perceived loss.  Perhaps the man who loses six feet of his property to the ravine should be compensated, if the City decides to leave the ravine in its natural state.  

I'm not sure what the answer is.  Compensation might open a can of worms.  All I know--is that the "aesthetic commons" is being overgrazed, and it's time to think about calling the sheriff.

It's easy for Boston farmers to agree that grass for cows is good.  It's a lot harder for neighbors to agree on whether a hawk or a green lawn is more aesthetic.

What do you think?

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