Thursday, April 28, 2011
"The Tragedy of the Commons"
I work for a university, which is a large charitable corporation that does a lot of work for the government as well as private industry. I mention its structure because a lot of people think that it is a government institution, which will bear on their emotional response towards what follows. I mention this before the following meditation because I want the reader to be prepared to park their ideological assumptions at the door and read what I write instead of following the narrative that many folks follow when they think about government.
One of the things that an academic institution has to do is purge books that no one wants to read. If they didn't do that, they would have to constantly expand the size of the building to find room for the new books that it is constantly buying. This causes problems for the institution because many people have a huge emotional investment in the idea that books should never be discarded. That is to say, the library has to hide the fact that we are throwing out books because if we don't some folks---often elderly people who are potentially large donors to the institution---will complain bitterly.
In the past this need to hide has caused big hassles for the institution. Many years ago, for example, the university had to build a complex, covered slide to hide books that were being discarded from an older building because people had complained about seeing books being thrown out a window into a dumpster. The books were still being thrown out, but now they were hidden from sight by a plywood chute. Another time someone complained about seeing books marked with the library stamp in a landfill. As a result, we started boxing surplus books, packing them on skids and shipped them to the National Book repository hundreds of miles away---where they were landfilled. This went on for years and cost the institution a lot of money, even though the collections budget had been cut repeatedly to save money.
We no longer ship books to the Repository because they can be "recycled". But we recently had a new purge and I noticed that once again the books are being packaged in boxes, placed on skids and shipped out of the building----even thought we have a dedicated recycling bin right in receiving. Why not just dump them there as they come down?
It turns out that the municipal recycling system will not accept books unless they have their covers torn off. (This is probably because the covers cause problems for the machinery in one part of the recycling process or another.) This would be a huge task for the institution as they are purging thousands of books right now. We do have a company that is willing to accept the books as is, but if it placed a dumpster on campus they are concerned that the books would be contaminated with other garbage. This is a reasonable fear, as people routinely come onto campus with loads of garbage and throw trash into the dumpsters without any regard to whether or not they are putting their refuse in the right one.
As a result, in order to "do the right thing", the university has to use a lot of corrugated cardboard boxes (many of which are reused, but a lot have been purchased new specifically to box these books meant for "recycling".) They are being loaded onto trucks and shipped across town to go into a dumpster that is safely away from the members of the public who would contaminate it.
At this point I hope anyone with any sense has realized that all the extra handling, the diesel fuel used in transit plus the cardboard boxes probably mean that any value that the environment might have seen from reusing the paper pulp is more than wiped out. Please note, as well, that I have been putting the word "recycle" in "scare quotes" for a reason. The company that is receiving the books is not pulping the books to make paper, it is instead shredding them for animal bedding. I hope that after its use it gets composted and spread on fields, but for all I know it gets incinerated or landfilled.
I mention this one example of what really happens when we try to recycle in order to show just how illogical our society has become.
I mention all of this primarily to draw people's attention to the way people's assumptions swirl around them and drive institutional behaviour. For example, I had to start this little anecdote by warning people that I do not work for the government. I did this because my experience has been that once some people assume that the government is involved, they just "write it off" as being inherently inefficient. Well, no, I don't work for the government. Moreover, I have worked for very large private sector corporations and it has been my personal experience that large corporations are just as inefficient as the public sector. Inefficiency, as near as I can tell, is a result of an institution being huge and hierarchical, not whether it is owned by taxpayers or shareholders.
Once this caveat is out of the way, I will draw reader's attention to the strong emotions that are drawn out about books. People do not like to throw them out. This causes no end of problems for people in charities who end up with enormous piles of unsalable books being delivered at their doorstep. And, as I pointed out, it causes significant problems with academic libraries that have to routinely purge books that have absolutely zero value for the public. After all, outside of a very small academic readership, who wants back issues of "The Journal of Bloody Diarrhea"?
I would ask readers to parse down the emotions that are at play and think about their commitment to recycling. How much of an improvement is it to "recycle" the paper in the books when the process of doing so involves the purchase of new books and driving the books to an isolated dumpster where they won't be contaminated---so they can be shredded and used as bedding material instead of being made into new books? Could it be argued that the emotional commitment that people have towards recycling is often about as illogical as the emotional commitment that many people have towards the preservation of books?
I got started meditating on the way our cherished assumptions and emotional feelings influence our behaviour---both individual and collective---by thinking about a seminal essay titled "The Tragedy of the Commons", by Garrett Hardin. I have seen this essay referred to by right wingers who say that it argues that all natural resources should be privatized in order to prevent their over-utilization and destruction. In actual fact, however, it argues that the tragedy isn't one of public ownership, but rather that of under-regulation.
A "tragedy", as classically understood, was not just a bad thing that happens to someone, but rather a very bad thing that comes about because of the inherent nature (or, in Daoist terms "Ziran") of a person sows the seeds of their destruction. In Shakespeare, for example, the tragedy of Hamlet is his vacillating character which means that he ends up destroying both himself and the royal court instead of simply revenging his father's assassination.
The specific "tragedy of the commons" refers to the way that collective ownership can lead to the destruction of a natural resource. The example used in the essay is that of a medieval pasture where peasants were allowed to graze their cattle. The idea is that because everyone owns the pasture, but only the peasant owns an individual cow, the cost to the individual due to overgrazing is greatly diluted whereas the utility of having another cow is significant. That is the cost of over grazing is "X" divided by the number of peasants in the entire community, whereas the profit of owning another cow, "Y" belongs only to one person. (In economics, this is known as "externalizing your costs".) This means that there is a strong self-interest for peasants to have as many cows as they can and over-graze and destroy the pasture in a way that they never would if they also owned the pasture individually.
Hardin used this example to argue that the environment is a "commons" that is held by all individuals and is being progressively "over-grazed" and destroyed. Because no one owns the oceans, they are being over-fished, the air is being polluted, etc. His answer, however, is not to privatize the entire environment, but rather to develop a strict regulatory regime that protects these "commons" from being damaged.
This is an intermediary stage in his argument, however, as his ultimate concern is population. Once we see the oceans, etc, as a "commons" that needs to be protected the next logical step is to see the entire earth and its future as a commons. And the greatest threat to that is arguably over population, if only because all insults to the earth caused by humanity are multiplied by the number of people who are insulting it. That is, if five people pollute a river they can get away with a great deal individually without causing severe damage. But five million have to all be extremely scrupulous in order to protect the stream.
If we accept that population increase has a tremendous impact on the "commons", and we believe that the only real way to protect it is through regulation, then it follows that we need to have some pretty significant regulation over the ability of human being to reproduce.
On the face of it, this should be pretty obvious to all and sundry. But the fact of the matter is that it is a conclusion that is very controversial. Not because the logic or evidence is faulty, but rather because people have such a strong emotional commitment to the idea that there is something good about large families that they are blinded to obvious fact that the earth is grotesquely over-populated.
If you listen to old women you will often notice the extreme pride they take in the size of their families. For example, I recently heard two women in a restaurant bragging about how many children and grand-children they each had. One had ten and the other had fourteen. On the occasion of my grandmother's death I remember the enormous satisfaction my mother had----she had five children herself and she had four surviving brothers and sisters herself, most of whom had had at least two children too. This emotional commitment to "family" is the sort of thing that is driving our population explosion.
I've been trying to point out that key behaviours of both individuals and institutions are being driven by emotions because I want to point out a significant debate that took place in ancient China and which I think should also be taking place right now. Amongst the other schools, there was one known as the "school of Fa " or "legalism" which battled with Confucianism. (For some reason, which is debated, Daoism was embraced and not persecuted by the Fa when they tried to erase all the other schools.)
For the purposes of this blog post, I would argue that legalism is the dominant philosophy of our society in that the initial response to any and all problems seems to be to pass a law about it. Confucianism (or, the school of "Ru"), in contrast, argues that this is wrong-headed because it ignores human nature and the fact that the world is too complex to be able to craft laws that can deal effectively with all possible situations. Confucianism believes that the way to govern society is to find and train good people and then give them the authority to "do the right thing".
As a matter of historical fact, the Fa school was successful in building up one of the warring states, Qin, into a military powerhouse that was able to conquer all the other states. As such, it set the direction of Chinese society for thousands of years to come. At the same time, the Confucians were also proven correct in that the totalitarian Fa state fell apart into rebellion and confusion because the leaders of the state had no moral glue holding them together after the death of the First Emperor and because the citizenry were so oppressed that they had no reason to support the state. As a result, Confucianism has survived as a seminal influence on Chinese political theory up until the present Communist state and perhaps past, as it now even seems to be being resuscitated as part of modern nationalist identity.
I introduced the distinction between Fa and Ru because these issues still dog us today. No matter what laws govern the institution of the University where I work, the administration still has to consider the emotions and concerns of the people it has to deal with. This leads to the absurdities of having to ship books long distances instead of just tossing them into a bin off the loading dock. Similarly, as someone who has spent far too many years in politics, I can assure you that people's emotions have huge bearing on the laws that get passed. (Even the legalists of the Qin dynasty realized that they have to think about this when they eventually went too far and ended up with peasant revolts on their hands.)
How this bears on the commons has a huge impact on Hardin's thesis. The medieval commons survived for over a thousand years because it was regulated by a combination of rule by the local lord and by the customs that held peasant society together. This blew apart when society changed and the old verities of society no longer held sway. It is easy for him to suggest that governments should regulate population, but I know from practical experience in politics that there is no swifter way to destroy a career than to simply point out that we are over-populated, let alone try to craft regulations to deal with it. A totalitarian state like Maoist China may be able to cut its population through its "one child law", but that sort of thing is simply beyond the authority of just about any other type of government.
I don't know what response I bring from thinking about these issues. For a long time I believed that it might be possible to actually change society by creating new mythologies or even a new religion that would be able to change the emotional framework of people, which could then create room for new laws and regulations governing things like population growth. I'm less sanguine about this sort of thing nowadays. Instead, I tend towards a more pessimistic opinion that people have very little control over the Dao and instead it simply follows its own path. Perhaps this is wisdom dawning, perhaps it is just exhaustion and old age.
One of the paradoxes of life is that we begin to see the complexity of things just at the point where we lose the energy necessary to try to be an active agent in the world.