THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS IS NOT JUST COW PIES


It was minor, really, and I shouldn’t have gotten upset.  The bicyclist rode past me on the river path, waving.  The problem was that no bicycles were allowed on this quarter mile path.  None.  There was a sign and a gate, although there was a tire mark in a rut in the ground by the gate.  I liked the path, because if I didn’t have to worry about a bicyclist, I could walk on either side and not have to look behind me before crossing, unlike in the rest of the park where it was paved.  The park also had dirt paths where it seemed clear bicycles were not allowed, but they appeared there, too.

And it wasn’t just bikes.  I had a loose dog snap at me once, and another time a couple let their dog loose, as if the whole 413 acre park was for their dog alone.  In 3 minutes, the dog urinated twice, defecated, and chased some ducks off a small area of water.  I was incensed.  Dogs were supposed to be on a leash.  There was a sign.

Leashes are often treated as optional in other local parks, too, and I shudder to think how much urine and feces are in the woods near the trail. On the last 75 yards to the freeway-paralleling sidewalk near my home, there were 4 dog poops in the first twenty feet.  The Club once picked up 100 different poops in about 2 miles’ trail.  Sometimes, the stuff is bagged, and the bag left “for pickup,” as if absolving the owner from any further duty. I suggested to the Club members who wanted “dog hikes” that maybe they do periodic trail poop pick-ups on a monthly hike.  That got a stony silence.  

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not the dog’s fault—a dog is being a dog.  I have issues with bad owners.  And bicyclists who flout rules.  I used to ride, but I got off at a crosswalk, because pedestrians have right of way and on my bike I was a vehicle.  

This brings me to a basic problem in the country today, a key debate, really, that often divides along party lines:  the right of the individual to do what he/she wants vs. the common good.  

Many want to be able to go where they wish, take whatever animals they wish with them, do what they want, be it camping, shooting a firearm, hunting whatever they choose, driving at whatever speed they want to, running an outboard motor where they wish, taking up as much space on a campground, or an Appalachian Trail shelter as they wish, playing whatever music they want at whatever volume they wish, and consume whatever they feel like consuming, food or resources.

And not pick up after themselves….Or their dog.

The problem is the tragedy of the commons:  if everybody grazes cows on the commons, pretty soon, there is no grass left (and a lot of cow pies.)  If we cut down all the trees we can for “jobs,” pretty soon there won’t be any more cuttable trees.  We can, of course, say that there are the same number of trees, assuming replanting, but Weyerhaeuser doesn’t hire loggers on the basis of “tree counts,” even if some in Washington use the term.

We hunted the Passenger Pigeon to extinction.  We fished out the Grand Banks.  We almost exterminated bison.  We are in danger of losing all coral, and well on our way, given ocean acidification and warming, to losing all fish.  All of this has been due to no effective regulation.

Individual rights?  Or Common good?

I practiced medicine for years dealing with this dichotomy, which I called autonomy vs. accountability.  Many of my colleagues wanted to be left alone to practice the way they chose, regardless of whether it was out of date, not supported by science, or outright dangerous to patients.  Some crossed over to the accountability side only when their turf was invaded by others practicing outside their range of expertise.  When that happened, I was told to “do something about this.”  

The country is facing an environmental crisis by ignoring climate change, opening up formerly protected areas for resource extraction, relaxing rules regarding what is a poison, what is an allowable level of a dangerous compound, and who controls the land.  There are too many people having too many children, but I’ve given up on that one.  The irony is that the individual rights group believes they have a right to access, at any time, all land in their area (except their own private property, of course.)  Eliminating public land will shut everyone out of that land as the wealthy buy it and make it their own private property.  Normally, I would be glad to see the individual rights group get their comeuppance, but locked up land, unless it is wilderness, is unable to be accessed, so there is neither individual rights nor a common good operating here.

Head to southeast Arizona and one reads about mega-farms, many foreign owned, where nut trees were planted, incredible users of water, obtained by wells drilled far below the depth of current ones, which are drying up as the water table falls.  There are road signs saying to drive slowly and watch for earth fissures, as excessive groundwater pumping has caused land shifts. Eventually, the entire aquifer will be depleted, and the only life will be that which can survive the harsh climate with what little rain falls.  Oaks in the Chiricahua Mountains can no longer send roots deep enough.  They are dying. Many large agricultural concerns moved to southeast Arizona because there were no regulations.  Even some die-hard local Republicans want “withdrawal (of water) fees,” (it’s really a tax, but nobody wants to use the word) and some even admit there is a case for governmental involvement.  It’s so bad that rural Arizonans are actually using the words “climate change”.  Funny how when one is affected, belief comes quickly.

The Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains is a third depleted, this information coming from space, using a pair of satellites to compare gravity.  One may not understand gravitational comparisons, but all should understand quite well what will happen when mid-continent agriculture runs out of water.  The hundredth meridian “dry line” has shifted two degrees of longitude to the east, which may not seem much, but a 140 mile shift  involves 38 million acres of Cornhusker land.  Both Grand Island and Kearney are now on the wrong side of the line, the Platte is in real trouble, as is a lot of land in the region that requires a lot of water for agriculture, let alone wetlands for the Central Flyway.  

Assuming birds matter.  Or the Sandhill Crane migration.

The common good is not just for those who are currently alive but for humanity’s future.  We alive today are the individual; those who are yet to be born are the common good.  We are leaving to those unborn generations a planet where it will be impossible to find cold adapted species except at the highest of altitudes. There will be far fewer large mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, far less arable land and clean water.  The common good—future generations— will share excessive heat, dryness, and crowding, because too many individuals—who had skin in the game—failed to act.

We are not dissimilar to bacteria on a Petri dish kept in a warm room.  The difference is the latter mindlessly grow, increasing their numbers, until they run out of nutrients.  Then they die.

Perhaps there is no difference.  

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