For thousands of years, the earth has relied on forests to ensure its homeostasis and self-regulating capabilities, providing a prosperous environment for a multitude of flora and fauna. However, over the past few decades, humans have incessantly deforested many tropical rainforests around the world causing atmospheric pollution, loss of biodiversity, and soil nutrient depletion, which in turn has created a deplorable state in such ecosystems and in the ecosystems at large. In short, humans have mistreated and abused their access to the forest as a common, acting rationally but selfishly, in the sense described by Garrett Hardin in his essay “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Hardin describes these actions as going against the collective interest of the preservation of the commons.
If this uncontrolled deforestation persists, an irreversible effect will take place where global warming will be continue to intensify and many more species will permanently disappear from the face of earth, thus unchaining many more problems due to the altered environment. While some regulations have been put in place to slow down the chopping down of trees and reforestation plans are already implemented, a more comprehensive solution with financial and legal penalties needs to be developed to stop people from using the forest resources unsustainably. Only a true mutual coercion between the parties involved can save the forests from being devastated.
Summary of the Tragedy of the Commons
In 1968, Garrett Hardin published a paper termed the “Tragedy of the commons”. In it, he describes that the “tragedy of the commons” arises when everyone “acts independently and rationally according to their own self-interest” (Daley, 2015) taking advantage of the resource at hand and thus deteriorating the quality of the resource. A commons, as Hardin describes it, is a naturally occurring, freely accessible, generally poorly regulated and finite asset that is shared among multiple individuals. The tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals exploit this resource for their own benefit and disregard the consequences to everyone involved. The individual interest (which is to maximize personal gain) is prioritized over the collective interest (which is the sustainable and equitable use of a resource), leading to the well known tragedy (Hardin, 1968). This behavior becomes unsustainable very quickly with larger populations and signifies the doom of the commons.
The tragedy of the commons resembles a non-zero sum game in which the total utility for taking a larger share of the resource and total loss due to an overuse of the resource are non-zero, with the losses for the whole being far greater than the individual gain in the long run. This makes it attractive for the individual to exploit and maximize their share at the expense of damaging the collective interest. Recognizing the necessity to regulate the use of the commons to preserve its continuity, individuals decide to favor the collective interest over their individual interest and design a system with a mutually coerced, “mutually agreed upon” (Hardin, 1968) solution to bias the choice of the individual. The system should make it less favorable to choose a self-interested alternative and hence aligns with the collective interest.
A technical solution for any problem is defined as one that requires a modification in the natural sciences but almost no change in morality or human values. As an ecologist and philosopher, Hardin argued that the tragedy of the commons cannot be solved by mere technical solutions (for these disregard the rational human behavior) but rather the solution to the tragedy requires policy changes and cultural changes (i.e. non-technical solutions) in which the actors were guided to make the decision that aligns with the collective interest. As Hardin explains, even though technical solutions can mitigate the problem, only non-technical solutions can provide hope in solving the tragedy.
An example of the tragedy of the commons where a technical solution is futile is in over breeding and thus overpopulation. The cost of producing more offsprings is amortized across society. The system of welfare favors the individuals and encourages them to make a selfish decision. This leads to a growing problem for the population at large since the food and shelter resources are not unlimited and must be shared. To counteract issues where technical solutions are ineffective, Hardin argues that laws in which the collective common good is preserved must be put in place and followed to guarantee the continuity of the commons. For Hardin, a real solution to the tragedy of the commons must include the implementation of biased options in which continuing with the misuse of the resource lead to severe financial punishment, making it financially unsustainable for an individual to keep making selfish decisions regarding the use of a common (Hardin, 1968).
A constantly reminded education and a diligent legislation will reduce the actions taken simply by self-interest of the individuals and favor a state of larger common good (Hardin, 1968). Hardin argues that individuals should be reminded constantly, “education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.” (Hardin, 1968)
Hardin also states that appealing to the individual conscience regarding the exploitation of a resource is pointless for it oversees two important points. One is the fact that if the individual doesn’t act as he should, he will be condemned for “for not acting like a responsible citizen” (Hardin, 1968). The other one is the fact that in acting as it was indicated, the person will be fooled and taken advantage of because everyone else will be continuing to exploit the resource. He explains it further by stating that “it’s a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience” (Hardin, 1968).
People that take advantage and don’t care “will produce a larger fraction of the next generation” than people who do care. Following Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory: “conscience is [then] self-eliminating” (Mack, n.d.). Lastly, Hardin provides an argument regarding the legislation of temperance. He states that “the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.” (Hardin, 1968). We can only judge a moral act within a particular frame of reference and thus any attempt to provide a general rule for temperance for all situations is vain for it oversees the fact that we live in a “complex, crowded, changeable world” (Hardin, 1968).
Background of the problem
According to the World Bank, the world’s forest areas cover about 31% of the world, creating ecosystems that are important for the development and maintenance of species and ensuring the self-regulating properties of our earth, in particular, combating the issue of climate change (World Bank, n.d.). Forests are important because they convert the carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into clean oxygen, allowing us to reduce the rate of global warming. For instance, the Amazon Rainforest provides about 20% of the world’s oxygen (Rainforest Foundation, 2017). The increase in the world’s population (or as Hardin would say, the overpopulation) has increased the demand for land and thus has also expanded the clearing of forests to make space for cattle, agriculture and living areas.
The destruction of forests has increased the amount of CO2 released (and not absorbed) into the atmosphere and has contributed to the increase in greenhouse-originated global warming (Dube 2014). The global warming in turn is reducing the quality of our forests making it harder to perform the tasks that we cut the trees down for: cattle, agriculture and the building of living areas. The overexploitation of this source commons (the forest) has led to a tragic outcome that all of us now suffer from.
The root of the problem of deforestation lies in the fact that there exists a financial utility to damaging the forest and selling its resources or using the land for cattle and agriculture. This leads to Hardin’s identified tragedy, where each individual actor is trying to maximize their share of the resource by exploiting it as much as possible, without taking into consideration the implications to the greater common good. Areas that were once green and full of life have become desolated and empty, rivers that once had clear running water have now been converted into irrigation systems for plants that are not native to the region (Robbins, 2015). Since forests represent such an important part of our ecological system, the problem goes beyond just a deforested area and affects all of us.
The number of CO2 particles released into the atmosphere is increasing, while the number of trees is reducing (Dube, 2014). As a common, the overuse of the resource affects the individual ranchers and farmers in Third World countries because it deteriorates the quality of the land that they have access to and thus also limit their production capabilities. Without proper care and timely actions, the forests could quickly become deserts and our land could become uninhabitable. Technical solutions as well as non-technical solutions must now be explored to contain and control the deforestation problem.
Many solutions have been presented and are already in place to reduce the logging of trees in forests. One of them indicates to plant a higher number of seeds than trees cut down, since planting trees “remains one of the cheapest, most effective means of drawing excess CO2 from the atmosphere” (Arbor Environmental Alliance, n.d.).
Despite the relative ease of implementation, this solution doesn’t take into account the time it takes for trees to grow, nor the fact that many of those seeds might not develop into trees if machinery runs over them or any other biological cause takes place. Moreover, older trees present far more advantages than their younger counterparts. While an older tree is able to absorb about 50 pounds of CO2 (carbon dioxide) per year, a younger tree can only take in a smaller percentage of the carbon dioxide of an older tree (Arbor Environmental Alliance, n.d.). Similarly, mature trees create a better ecosystem for animals and species since they provide more opportunity for shelter and higher nutrients. The damage caused by getting rid of a tree is not simply solved by planting a new seed.
Another technical solution to the problem is to recycle and reuse paper to reduce the need for trees to produce paper goods, but this solution hasn’t been implemented at large and the amount of new paper produced far outnumbers the amount of paper recycled.
Although recycling indeed reduces the need for wood and also generates less pollution during manufacturing since the fibers have already being processed once, the recycling plants are far outnumbered by the paper producing plants and so the rate of paper produced is higher than the paper recycled (Arbor Environmental Alliance, n.d.). More so, in many parts of the world, recycling of paper is a new concept and is not viable because the paper recycling infrastructures are non-existent. For these reasons, it is much easier to produce new paper than to recycle it. The individual interest trumps over the collective interest once again.
As we have seen, these purely technical solutions seem to tackle the problem superficially and do not address the main cause of the problem which is the actual chopping down of trees. While planting more seeds and reusing the paper indeed provides a theoretical solution to deforestation, evidence suggests that the percentage of forest land simply keeps on decreasing (WorldBank, 2015).
Even though governments have acknowledge the problems with deforestation, very little progress have been made towards a definitive solution. In this sense, both of these solutions, are unfortunately, not sustainable and inconclusive. A technical solution simply addresses the issue from a scientific perspective but fails to realize the impact that a change in morality and human values can have. As Hardin argues, we must look into non-technical solutions to solve the deforestation issue.
The tragedy of the commons occurs with finite resources that are “public” and that can be accessed by anyone, so a solution proposed by free-market enthusiasts would be to stimulate private ownership of the forests such that the self-interest of the owners can actually become a major driver in preserving the quality of the forest. An example would be to have a logging company own a part of the forest, rather than simply “renting” the resource out from the government.
This will foster the care of the forest because the self-interest of the company will ensure that there are enough trees around to continue with their normal business activities. When the profits are directly tied to the existence of a resource, then there is an incentive to make sure the resource stays around for longer. The selfish self-interest actually serves a bigger collective purpose (Hardin, 1968). Privatization of a resource emerges as a possible solution to the deforestation problem.
Despite the proposal for private ownership, mutual coercion is perhaps the best non-technical solution to the issue of deforestation. As Hardin explains it, mutual coercion is the result of legislation, regulation and enforcement that ensures protection of the commons. People abide by the rules set forth communally because they recognize the necessity for regulation in the light of the continuity of the commons. The solution is “mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” (Hardin, 1968). We don’t have to enjoy it but we must recognize that it is needed in order to preserve the commons.
In the case of deforestation, rules and laws must be passed to make the cutting down of trees illegal or at least financially disfavorable for people. Clearing away forests shall consist of a crime punishable by the law, and one in which legal action can be taken against. The option of cutting down trees is still there but now we offer a biased option that deters people from chopping down trees freely. With this solution in place, it is now expensive and against the law to cut down trees so less people will be inclined to continue felling trees. To ensure that people are abiding by the new norms, an oversight group can be formed to enforce the rules. This committee shall consist of non-biased members who are not directly financially tied to deforestation, paper production, or any other forest-disturbing activities.
The United Nations shall create this committee to reduce any particular country’s interest in the deforestation activities. Nations that exceed their allowed deforestation quota in a year should be required to pay a fine higher than their calculated financial returns from the deforestation. An audit which measures the amount of deforestation can be run every year to determine the fine to pay. If a country or individual constantly exceeds their quota and makes no effort in preventing further deforestation, he shall be permanently banned from having access to the forest for it violates the collective and “mutually agreed-upon” interest (Hardin, 1968).
Punishment is one way of coercing individuals into action, but rewards can also have a similar effect. In addition to creating a system in which it is financially unsustainable to cut down trees, incentives can also be put in place to entice individuals to preserve trees and reduce the disturbance of the rainforests ecosystems. Monetary incentives that praise forest companies that are making an effort to reduce their carbon footprint can be created in which such companies pay lower taxes or have access to more government grants to foster a more sustainable forest use. The Ecologic Institute in the EU analyzed the “use of market incentives” to “preserve biodiversity” and noticed a larger inclination for preservation in companies that were “offered market based instruments” (Bråuer, 2006).
Any company that sustainably uses the commons can be granted a larger share of it, while companies that don’t use the common sustainably can see their share decrease. Besides that, companies can also improve their corporate image by being able to incorporate green badges on their profiles and thus showing their customers that they are aware and are actively working towards the deforestation problem. Both the monetary and the image improvement incentive can coerce companies into doing more environmentally conscious activities.
Moreover, a cultural shift must occur in which people understand and are reminded of the benefits that forests bring to our lives. Education, as Hardin argues, must be provided constantly and “the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed” to ensure that it sticks to the minds of the individuals involved. Thus, campaigns against deforestation should run periodically to remind people of the damage that deforestation causes to not only the environment but to themselves. When people become more educated and informed about the consequences of deforestation, compliance and even favoring of the legislation can occur. Only when people understand the underlying problem of deforestation and the ramifications of it, will they be prone to pursue a “mutually agreed-upon” solutions that transform and change moral behavior.
The growth of the world’s population has created an increased demand for forest-related products (namely paper) and space for grazing and agriculture. With everyone having access to the forest as a common, an overexploitation occurred in which the cutting down of trees has damaged ecosystems, eroded our soils, and has become an unsustainable activity. Hardin’s tragedy of the commons arises as people prioritize their individual interest over the collective interest of preserving the forest. In extending their individual share of this natural resource, humans are depleting the benefits available to the group.
Action must be taken now if we are to conserve our forests and prevent an even more deleterious behavior. To cut down the amount of deforestation that is occurring it is not only important to create legislations that prevent and make it financially inaccessible to chop down trees, but also to instill a cultural shift in which the importance of trees is internalized. The effects of deforestation can be reversed if we act now and if we take the actions to counteract its activities. Only this can save us from the tragedy of commons.
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