A Tragedy Found within the Commons and Water Quality

This week marked the 3rd Annual Choose Clean Water Conference (my first professional conference).

Here are just a few things I took away from my experience…

  1. Always pin your nametag on the right.
  2. The best way to learn about stormwater management problems is to get caught in a thunderstorm walking to dinner.
  3. The best way to circumvent Number 2 is to always bring a rain jacket and/or umbrella.  When one is not available, a tree works just as well.
  4. And most importantly, there are a lot of great things happening in regards to water quality, but there is a lot still to be accomplished.

I have been fumbling around for the last week or so trying to write a blog on Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.”  I was struck with a writer’s block that would not relent, mostly due to my inability to think of an environmental topic that I found satisfactory to couple with the arguments of the published work.  It was not until sitting in the panel discussions at the conference that I finally realized where I wanted to go with my blog post.

As a society we tend to look at water as an unlimited resource, reliably clean and available at a moment’s notice through the tap.  Yet when it comes to the health of our natural streams and waterways, we continue to point the proverbial finger and place the blame on someone else.

The tragedy of the commons of water, as well as our land use, has caused the pollution and degradation of our surrounding waterways.

For those that are unfamiliar with, or a little rusty on the topic of “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin, here is a quick break down.

“The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the number of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. (Excerpt taken from the website Population-Environment Balance).”

How we treat the land directly impacts the health of our rivers and streams and how we treat said rivers and streams directly impacts our health.  Do you think that when problems arise regarding our water quality, such as the fish kills due to Mahogany Tides on the Chesapeake Bay, that such quality will not have any effect on our health?  Do you think that if we allow our agricultural waste to flow from the land into nearby waters, that it will somehow not impair the ecosystems and the health of those that depend on the water?

We have to stop looking at our waterways as an unlimited resource, a commons to be taken advantage of.  It is this mindset that promotes their continued degradation with toxics, pesticides, and waste.  We must stop trying to find somebody else to point the proverbial finger at.

Do you really know what’s in your water?  Living in ignorance of the health of surrounding waterways does not eliminate the underlying problem, nor does it eradicate the negative impact on the ecosystem and human health.

Environmental health directly correlates to public health.  The sooner we make this connection as a society, the quicker we can work to affect change and improve those impaired waterways and sources of pollution.