May 11, 2014
The Tragedy Of The Commons Still Globally Unsolved

See Tyler Cowen's post The commons are still tragic.

Some people have a more optimistic outlook on the future than I do. Take for example, Ramez Naam's book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. It is an excellent well-researched book. I recommend it to your attention. Ramez does a good job of outlining the prospects for many promising technological advances. But technology that avoids major sacrifices does not seem sufficient for the problem. I believe human nature (or, rather, human natures) and incentives lead to outcomes that make me not share that optimism.

One problem is the tragedy of the commons. Under what scenario might be handled effectively on a global scale? Global government might do it. But that is a long ways off andit is not clear the powers in a global government would handle the problem effectively.

Can we avoid political solutions? The optimists see technology as providing substitutes to reduce demand on limited resources. But new technologies do not just play the role of substitutes. They can just add more ways to build up more resource extraction capabilities.

I see technology playing a very large role to accelerate resource depletion (e.g. factory fishing ships with sonar to track fish, robotic mining equipment, computer models to find oil more rapidly). It is not clear to me that technological advances will, on net, reduce resource usage. The opposite seems more likely. Our ability to harness more of nature to do human bidding may continue to accelerate resource depletion and habitat damage in much of the globe.

Another problem looms that the optimists do not address at all: natural selection. Selection for higher fertility seems inevitable to me and I suspect we are already seeing signs of it (e.g. the rise of religious groups that are totally immune to the fertility-lowering effects of modern civilization). I do not see how technology will solve that without dictatorial power to alter which genes get passed on to offspring.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2014 May 11 12:13 PM 

Wolf-Dog said at May 11, 2014 5:04 PM:

It also depends on how exactly technology is used: if the new technology is merely a more efficient version of its 20th century version, then you are probably correct, and it will only accelerate the mining of resources, leading to fast depletion. On the other hand, if future technology becomes enriched by scientific improvements of qualitative nature, then formerly unknown or intractable kinds of resources will be extracted: the key resource is energy because with enough energy, there is no theoretical limit to how much more resources can be mined and converted from the solar system and beyond; with enough energy you can even convert one metal into another.

If fusion, thorium reactors, and space-based solar energy extraction can be perfected by combining new science to generate better technology, then there will be no lack of resources, as the other planets and asteroids in the solar system can then be used for mining.

Ramez Naam said at May 11, 2014 5:19 PM:

Thanks for the mention of The Infinite Resource and the kind words.

I largely agree that most global tragedies of the commons remains unsolved. What happens is that individual commons tragedies get solved in a piecemeal manner, starting with the easiest problems and with regional solutions before global solutions.

On a global basis, we've gone a good distance towards solving it for CFCs and other ozone-destroying gasses but not a whole lot more.

On a national and multi-national basis (in Europe and North America) we've made good progress for SO2 (acid rain), lead, benzene, particulates (smog), forests, etc.. IMHO it's likely that other regions, as they rise in wealth, will solve those same regional commons issues in much the same way.

Globally we also appear to be turning the corner on forests (though there's still room to mess that up).

But we have quite a long way to go before we solve most of the truly global commons issues.

DdR said at May 12, 2014 7:56 AM:

Hi Ramez,

Great that you contributed a comment.

Question: how do you see global society prevailing in restoring ocean fish stocks? Right now most nations fish with impunity, thereby endangering many fish species, from cod, to tuna, to shark. Besides certain countries instituting fish quotas and highly regulated seasons for their nation's waters, I don't see much progress, especially out in international waters. Any thoughts?


Ramez Naam said at May 12, 2014 9:23 AM:


My hope is that aquaculture will continue to grow more efficient, while wild fishing gets more and more expensive (as fish stocks dwindle) until at some point fish farms either put fishing fleets out of business through pure economics, or (more realistically) the presence of a large supply of fish from aquaculture makes it more politically viable to put international restrictions in place on wild ocean fishing.

The economist wrote a piece on how wild ocean fish are becoming more expensive (as it takes more energy to catch them in their thinning numbers) while farmed fish are becoming cheaper (due to efficiency gains in aquaculture):

And you can see how essentially all the gain in fish production in the last 20 years has come from aquaculture, as fisheries around the world topped out in the 90s.

In general, in my view, the presence of technological alternatives makes it easier to achieve the political and policy goals needed to protect the commons. We'd be a lot less likely to sign an international deal protecting ocean fish 20 years ago, when there was almost no aquaculture. But 10 or 20 years from now, if aquaculture is 2/3 or 3/4 of all fish production, it might be viable.

James Bowery said at May 12, 2014 11:45 AM:

"(e.g. the rise of religious groups that are totally immune to the fertility-lowering effects of modern civilization)"

Where individuals have not reached agreement about what constitutes fair evolution, the people perish.

dscott said at May 13, 2014 6:41 AM:

I do not see how technology will solve that without dictatorial power to alter which genes get passed on to offspring.

Who gets to decide? You? Al Gore? Putin? Obama?

The tragedy of the commons is that collectivists see what they haven't yet organized (control) and ruined, for them this is a tragedy.

For the rest of us, the 7 billion people who inhabit the planet, the tragedy is the meddling, know-it-all, busy bodies who appoint themselves as experts to be the faux consciences of self made religion telling the rest of us how to live, what to eat and what our crap should look like and in the process profiteer off the masses.

How about instead of worrying about what you personally don't see due to your limited perception of the universe and let the collective intelligence of 7 billion people figure that out on our own? All environments require an equilibrium, and those that seemingly are unbalanced are merely in the throws (process) of rebalance. The process is ruthless and efficient and there are no guarantees of a soft landing. Meddling in the process to produce that soft landing involves politics, and that means choosing winners and losers. In politics, making choices has little to do with efficacy but with whom will enhance the status and power of the politician. To date, no political system has been successful at making the right choices so why introduce politics only to make the equilibrium process more violent and destructive?

How about instead we broaden our vision of the universe and instead use and modify the tools we have already at our disposal, namely creativity and the accumulated knowledge of thousands of years. There is 70% of the planet we haven't really used that efficiently at all, the ocean surface. It's called Sea Steading. We have unlimited room and resources in this solar system, that's called Space Colonization. We actually have all the basic knowledge needed to do both, what is impeding us is the legal system to individually or collectively exploit those areas at our economic level. Who controls the legal system? That would be the politicians via the enactment of laws that favor themselves by creating scarcity which in turn increases the competition cost for those resources. E.g. Rent control, the BLM, the EPA, ethanol mandates, carbon mandates, rules, regulations, licensing requirements.. Read what James Madison had to say in Federalist Paper # 62.

Dictatorial power requires the existence of an elite and by nature the elite makes their living by profiteering off the masses. It has always been so. And you would have the self serving elite make those decisions? That's not a solution but just another complicating problem hindering the equilibrium (solution) process.

James Bowery said at May 13, 2014 10:08 AM:

Dscott, please refer to The Evolution of Eusociality by Nowak et al and, more specifically for human civilization, The Social Conquest of Earth by E. O. Wilson.

It makes things much clearer if you realize that the organizing principle is the level at which correlated selection takes place. What I mean by correlated selection is that even if we posit that the "gene" is the "unit of selection", if selective pressure is applied to a number of genes in correlation, they will evolve cooperation -- and this is true whether that correlation is provided by their common residence in an individual organism (as in social competition) or in a group of organisms (as in eusocial competition aka "war").

For true individualists there is no way around the harsh fact that conflict resolution which has an appeal of last resort other than the individual vs the individual (individual vs individual being manifestly the case in other sexual species where males will engage in natural duels), is subject to eusocial evolution hence "collectivism". I am not presenting this as a reductio ad absurdum of liberty -- on the contrary -- I am presenting this as its fulfillment.

Ronald Brak said at May 13, 2014 8:41 PM:

Thanks for those interesting links, Ramez Naam.

dscott said at May 14, 2014 7:13 AM:

James, you are talking around the reality of human existence via esoterics. You can not overcome the inbred greed of the elites which is why the consent of the governed must contain them through accountability. If you advocate the UN running the show as Randall does then what you in all practicality advocate is Iran and North Korea making decisions affecting your life. The UN is comprised of many countries whose leaders are opposed to personal freedom, this is why we get the ridiculous result of Iran being on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. The elites don't create, they use and manipulate what exists for their own benefit, that is their nature. You can not change their nature.

I refuse to live a world where the destiny of humanity is to be depicted as a boot stamping on a human face, forever. The organizing principle of humanity is God and without Him humanity devolves into fiefdoms ruled by self aggrandizing elites who impoverish the people whom they rule. Running the world is not an academic exercise, it is a practical outworking of billions of individuals making choices. It is the elites who limit and turn those choices to bitter ends, that is the historical reality of our existence.

James Bowery said at May 14, 2014 9:25 AM:

Let me speak in your terms, then: The word which you throw around so recklessly, "God", refers, less vaguely, to the aboriginal creative consciousness that self creates. We are descended from God who dwells within us as Creator and we dwell within God as Creation. This creative consciousness is its own organizing principle. Among the descendants of the Creator as Creation, humans are special in that only humans have both the capacity to perceive the long-range direction of Creation and the capacity to choose a creative direction. When we reach social agreements we are exercising that choice, whether we realize it or not, by virtue of the fact that our social creations have evolutionary consequences. If we choose a creative direction not in accord with the long-range direction of Creation, we create Hell in the form of group selection as regression from sexual reproduction (meiosis, love, death and rebirth) to asexual reproduction (mitosis and "life everlasting"). If we choose a creative direction in accord with Creation, we create Heaven in the form of individual selection -- even if that Heaven includes parasitic wasps feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, and their counterparts in human ecology.

It reduces to the social agreements that we, as individuals, come to with each other and the guiding spirit coupled to the unique perceptive capacity of human, within which those agreements are reached.

Less esoterically, humanity is bifurcating into sexual and asexual species, with the asexual valuing the role of being "part of something larger than themselves". They are, in effect, abrogating their God-heritage for the power and immortality of the asexual Being of which they are specialized asexual cells. This is why civilization seems Hell-bent on sexual perversion: It is destroying sex. My aforelinked proposal "Exponential Remediation of Civilization's Footprint" is an attempt to minimize the destruction of Creation by these asexual organisms and, hopefully, leave the rest of Creation to Man -- the moral animal that consciously accepts and socially agrees to heterosexual love and death as the evolutionary direction manifest by Creation.

Dave said at May 14, 2014 10:39 AM:
being "part of something larger than themselves"

Aren't people mainly motivated not so much by being part of something larger, but by individual immortality?

James Bowery said at May 14, 2014 10:58 AM:

People in Hell are mainly motivated by individual immortality because Hell is dysgenic. In a dysgenic environment preservation of what is at the expense of what is to come is the best that we can hope for. The "immortality" of mitotic reproduction is a faux substitute so transhumanism is an advance that offers the faux hope of individual evolutionary advance everlasting.

Dave said at May 14, 2014 12:06 PM:

I think people are motivated by the immortality of individual consciousness, not necessarily physical immortality, so I'm not sure that dysgenics comes into it.

Even what you describe seems to be premised on the desire for immortality or being part of something greater. You talk about us being "within God as Creation", being part of the "aboriginal creative consciousness".

Presumably when you say, "consciously accepts and socially agrees to heterosexual love and death as the evolutionary direction manifest by Creation", implicit in this is the notion that the individual's consciousness is not really obliterated in death but will persist since it is a part of the "aboriginal creative consciousness" or eternally persists as a part of it.

David Friedman said at May 14, 2014 8:45 PM:

You might be interested in the discussion of the general issue near the end of my _Future Imperfect_, which can be read online. The book discusses both optimistic and pessimistic possible results of technological revolutions.

The general point is that there are two solutions to the coordination problem, one of which, central control, doesn't work for large groups. The other is decentralized coordination along the general lines of private property and trade. For that to work, we need some way of dividing up the world into chunks such that most of what I do with my chunk only affects me, and similarly for everyone else. Exceptions that affect only a few known people can be dealt with by contract, exceptions that have a small effect on many people or a significant effect on a small number not known in advance by tort law. But it gets harder and harder to make that solution work as effects become longer range, so that what I do on/with my property is likely to have sizable effects on many others. Technological change makes us more powerful, hence can have that effect. As I put it in a talk in Shanghai yesterday, fireworks displays already raise some externality problems, but they would be larger if we used nuclear fireworks.

There are effects in the other direction, so I'm not arguing that technological progress predictably has net bad effects. But it could, because it could reduce the number of workable solutions to the coordination problem from one to zero.

I should probably add that I am suspicious of long run policy arguments based on claimed externalities, as in the case of population or global warming. Such changes have both positive and negative externalities, the magnitude of both is hard to predict since they are occurring over a long and uncertain future, so it's easy to make a selective calculation that ends up "justifying" whatever result you started with. My first piece of published economics was an attempt to calculate net externalities from population increase, published in the early 70's, and I concluded that I could not sign the sum.

Randall Parker said at May 14, 2014 9:06 PM:


Counting on one form on resource limitation (energy costs for fishing) to prevent another form of resource limitation (not enough fish) might not work. Imagine a future where energy is much cheaper and also robotic fishing ships are much more efficient and lower cost. The over-fishing could continue to an even lower level of surviving fish.

I expect technological innovations to lower the costs of going to far. The most pessimistic writers on Peak Oil are correct then fewer ships will sail the oceans. But while Peak Oil might cause an economic depression I still think humanity's overreach on habitat destruction will continue through overpopulation and lower cost processes for destroying habitats.

dscott said at May 15, 2014 5:51 AM:

Randall, your pessimism is unwarranted. E.g. Lowering of costs of oil saved the whales from whale hunters who were driving whales to extinction. Oil from the ground is cheaper than oil from a whale. This is not to say as in the Japanese case where limited whale hunting still exists for practically only one reason: employment of the fisherman. This is an example where governments through political choices continue a resource depleting practice long after there is no market for the resource via subsidizing it to artifically create a market. The true danger to the environment is governments via political choices overriding evolving economics. The Japanese seem to excel at these type of choices like over priced domestic rice to support an inefficient agricultural industry via import controls. Were it not for an elite making these choices, the collective actions of individuals in the free market would have put these people out of business decades ago. In Japan's case with whale hunting, it took an international governmental effort to limit the Japanese government's actions, one group of elites opposing another group of elites. Were it not for the Japanese government anti-whale hunting laws would not even be necessary.

Think of the collective as a neural net, billions of individuals collectively creating a solution through trial and error. Such solutions are efficacy driven, not politically driven.

Dan said at May 15, 2014 8:50 PM:

"the Japanese case where limited whale hunting still exists for practically only one reason: employment of the fisherman"

Japanese whaling has become a feature of national identity, much like ice skating in the Netherlands or the right to bear arms in America or possession of the Crimea for Russia. It's not just about fishermen's jobs any more.

Nick G said at May 18, 2014 3:15 PM:

Lowering of costs of oil saved the whales from whale hunters who were driving whales to extinction. Oil from the ground is cheaper than oil from a whale.

It would be nice if that were true, but that's not what happened. Japan was far from the most important whaling nation- they're just the most persistent in recent history, so they get disproportionate attention. Instead, factory whaling in many countries (including the US) stopped due to a collective, political decision to stop doing it: technological development, and free markets alone would not have saved whales:

"The development of modern whaling techniques was spurred in the 19th century by the increase in demand for whale oil,[5] sometimes known as "Train Oil" and in the 20th century by a demand for margarine and later meat. Whale oil is little used today[6] and modern commercial whaling is done for food."

Nick G said at May 18, 2014 4:38 PM:

It's important to say that free markets vs socialism is a false dichotomy, foisted on us by wealthy oligarchs who wish to avoid taxes and regulation.

Free markets need regulation to prevent fraud and theft. We can deal with things like Climate Change without intrusive regulations and domineering government: just tax CO2 emissions. Taxes are easy and simple to collect: they exist already, and don't prevent commerce in any way. They allow the invisible hand to work effectively in decentralized free markets.

People like the Koch brothers have created the myth that taxes and government are bad, because they don't want anyone telling them they can't pollute to their heart's content.

Randall Parker said at May 18, 2014 10:24 PM:


Whale overfishing continued in spite of petroleum oil:

Blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere were reduced to only a few percent of their unexploited stock size (which may have been as many as 200,000) by industrial whaling in the Southern Ocean, primarily from the 1920s-1940s. Although sadly they remain at very low levels (in the low thousands), encouragingly the available evidence reveals an increasing trend of around 8% per year in recent years.

Blue whales in the North Atlantic were also exploited heavily. A full assessment of present status has not been carried out. Encouragingly though, the available evidence suggests they are increasing, at least in the area of the central North Atlantic; at present, there are around 1,000 animals off Iceland and several hundred in the Gulf of St Lawrence. They remain rare in the northeastern Atlantic where they were once common.

The 1920s-1940s are many decades past when whaling for lighting oil started to decline. But the idea that capitalism and innovation saved the whales sounds nice.

We are also overfishing their food.

Yuri Thauriuopolis said at May 20, 2014 1:04 PM:

The 1970s Earth Day proclamations make for interesting reading in 2014. Presumably we are all now dead, having starved due to resource depletion and overpopulation sometime between 1970 and 1990. It was a horrific holocaust indeed, and we are lucky to be able to continue discussing these problems, despite having died.

Dysgenics may be the only real problem being discussed, though, since all the other problems can be solved by bright and creative people.

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