Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the CommonsI think I first heard about the tragedy of the commons in economics class, the term dates back to the writings of William Forster Lloyd in 1833 and the commons he was referring to was the shared grazing land that might be associated with a village and could be used by all villagers or commoners to graze animals.

Shared grazing land works as long as each commoner shares fairly, as soon as one grazer adds more livestock than his/her share the resource becomes over-used and unsustainable. In an ancient village it worked through two pressures; the finite resource was enough for each commoner, and the commoners knew each other so social pressure would act to keep any greed in check.

In the modern world, and in the absence of any regulatory check, both of these pressures are absent. In this scenario individuals has a tendency to use as much of the resource, the commons, to their own advantage. The result is that the commons becomes depleted and ruined.  Each individual is incentivised to use as much of the resource as possible, meanwhile the costs are spread amongst all users.

In 1963 Harbin extended the concept to include environmental issues, positing that a finite planet can only support a finite population, and since then the term has been applied in discussion on the environmental and sustainability.

US and the Paris Agreement

It’s come up again this week in reaction to the US President’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris agreement.

Most sane people are horrified by this decision because science.  Most of the world’s scientists agree that climate change is real, and caused by human activity.

The real debate is how fast the change is happening and what we can do about it. In 2016 most of the world’s countries signed the Paris Agreement – 197 in total, with 148 ratifying it thereafter. Only two countries did not sign; Syria and Nicaragua. Syria because its leaders are under sanctions and cannot enter Europe. Nicaragua did not sign because, in their view, the agreement didn’t do enough. So although many articles are grouping Syria, Nicaragua and US into one group it’s unfair: only Trump’s America is rejecting the agreement out of a belief that they don’t need to do anything. †

The planet has become  “the commons” and we’re looking at fair exploitation of a finite resource. The Paris Agreement was an attempt to address that “fairness”. It is an agreement where states set their own targets, but since there is no supra governmental body to monitor countries’ performance they can be considered non-binding. The Paris Agreement is flawed, but not as flawed as the President of the US has claimed; his statements have been extensively checked by the Washington Post.

The Discussion on Climate Change

I’ve spent some time in discussion with online commentators, and those supporting the President’s decision do so for one of three reasons

Reason 1: God will fix it:
This screenshot is from a conversation on Instagram, the sender contacted me by DM after I asked her a question on a public post. (The sender went on to call me a stalker, if they read this no doubt they’ll find a worse epithet.)

To which Michelle Wolf had the perfect response:

Reason 2: The US is being treated unfairly, because China produces more greenhouse gas than we do.

There is some truth in this statement, on an absolute numbers bases China produces more greenhouse gases than the US. However it also has 4 times the population. In addition historically the US has produced more greenhouse gases than any other nation. Here’s a map showing the per capita use around the world from the EAA

The US has been exceeding its fair use of non-renewable energy for decades. If the Paris agreement seems unfair perhaps try thinking of it as redressing the balance.

Reason 3: The US is already a leader in sustainable energy

No, the US isn’t. There seems to be an weird belief that the US is the best at whatever is under discussion amongst some commentators.  China outstrips the US on building wind power capacity, by a factor of 3 (2015 figures).  If you think a per capita comparison is fairer, I took the data for 2016 total installed wind power capacity, divided it by the population and then the US has 205 MW per million people compared to 84 MW per million people in China. But before you exalt, 10 countries outperform the US including Uruguay.

I’m using wind power installation as a rough proxy for sustainable energy, it’s true there are other forms; Hydroelectricity where China also leads on capacity, and Solar Power, no prizes for guessing that China also leads there.

The US is not a leader in this.

Climate Change Impact

Climate change is already having an impact around the world.

Tuvalu has seen a rise in sea level of 20 cm., and with other low lying small nations has seen an increase in the number of serious storms they experience.  Mauritius has been facing this since 2013. Many African countries are vulnerable as temperatures rise and they may lack the resources to address changes. That refugee crisis we have now will be dwarfed if nations become unable to feed themselves.

But Americans don’t need to look overseas for examples, Louisiana is losing about a football field of land every hour. There several factors contributing to this but one is rising sea levels.

Alternative Explanation

Whenever big outrageous news is announced I look behind it for what else is going on. Hiding unwelcome news behind something attention-grabbing is a useful communication strategy. So what else has been going on in US politics?

The Other US Reaction

About 70% of Americans believe climate change is real, but have a harder time seeing that it will impact them. It’s the sort of risk question humans are terrible at answering,  one that has a big impact somewhere in the future.

Some extraordinary Americans have stepped up, from individuals to business leaders to civic leaders.

Michael Bloomberg, a long time activist on climate change has promised to find a way to support the operations of the the branch of the UN that coordinates the activities on the Paris Agreement.

The Governors of Washington, New York and California, which is about 20% of the US population have begun an alliance of states committed to the Paris Agreement.

Companies such as Apple, Ford, Exxon Moblie, Tesla, Disney, Microsoft, GE, IBM, Salesforce, Amazon, Intel, HP, Goldman Sachs, Google, Shell, Virgin have all stated their commitment to continue reducing greenhouse gas production.

There is also a certain amount of peer pressure in play, US companies may need to meet the regulation of their export markets. Consumer pressure also has an impact both in the US and around the world.

While we teeter on on the brink of another “tragedy of the commons” it seems that the single most powerful person in the commons has much less power than the combination of other commoners.

It turns out the president doesn’t have as much power as he thought. How about that.


† When he’s not being President of the country but merely chairman of a company that owns a golf course in Ireland that’s threatened by rising sea levels Mr Trump believes in climate change bigly.

Image:  Beef Research  |  CANFR  |  CC BY-NC 2.

World Earth Day

Saturday is World Earth Day, this year’s theme is “Climate Literacy” which is needed more than ever. I have been reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History which is scary warning for all that is going wrong with our natural environment.  It essential, if depressing, reading. So I started to look for some signs of hope, technology that is making things better, and simple ways to make my habits more sustainable.

Food

One big impact on our environment comes from what we eat, the high level of meat in our diet has a negative effect in terms of land use, water use, pollution and green house gas emissions. Some experts conclude that we just need to eat less meat, according to Mark Bittman in a TED talk from 2007 “Less meat, less junk, more plants”. There are a couple of answers for the future that don’t require you to give up all the bacon.

Cultured Meat

Also called synthetic meat, fake meat, clean meat or in vitro meat, depending on the view of the writer. It has given rise to all those stories of the World’s Most Expensive Burger, tasty Chicken treats, and pet medication. As far as I know there’s no synthetic bacon that passes the taste test – yet.

Insects

I have eaten scorpion.

What we eat is largely culturally determined, and while in the west eating insects has a high cultural barrier around the world thousands of people eat insects – deliberately.

So where did I eat scorpion? In China, there was a translation issue, or a pronunciation issue since the word for scorpion (xiēzi) is quite close to the word from eggplant (qiézi). Or perhaps it was the waiter’s little joke on the foreigners. The scorpion is technically an arachnid, rather than an insect, but the idea is the same. They come deep fried, which denatures the poison and they’re, um, crunchy.

If you feel ikky about eating insects it’s a barrier you can overcome, indeed we may have to.

What can you do?

  • reduce the amount of meat you eat, experiment with meat-free Mondays, or only eat meat in the weekends.
  • pay attention to the source of your meat, if you’re eating less you can pay more for meat from animals that have been grazing outdoors.
  • learn to cook vegetarian meals, the lentil is your friend.
  • plan your meals so that you reduce food waste.

Clothing

Fashion has evolved a ‘fast fashion‘ ethos, where we add to our wardrobe continuously with cheap clothes designed not to last. This consumes resources and creates waste as we throw away clothes after relatively few wears. The waste created is reaching crisis proportions, with Americans discarding 35 kilograms of clothing per year. Some estimates reckon that clothes on the fast fashion cycle stay in a woman’s closet just five weeks. There is a lot to think about in the quest to buy sustainable clothing.

coffee grounds

There are advances being made in the actual composition of the fabric used in clothing, using soy, recycled nylon, or coffee grounds.  Some of the companies are also developing closed loop systems so that everything developed will be recycled again.

There are also entrepreneurs working on new crops for fabric, bamboo is promising as a source but it’s manufacturing process seems to be a problem. Alpaca, wool and hemp also provide sustainable options, in each case you need to now about the source and the processing to be really sure.

What can you do?

  • pay attention to fabric type and source, avoid toxic fabrics
  • check manufacturing process, ask who made your clothes
  • when buying a garment ask yourself if you would wear it at least 30 times, this is the #30wears campaign started by Livia Firth. (Hat tip Mathilde Teuben)
  • repair your clothes, you should be able to sew on a button yourself, but there are tailors in every city. Two winters ago I paid for a winter coat to be re-lined, I think it cost 50 euro but that was cheaper than a replacement coat and it’s lasted two more winters.
  • consciously recycle, if you research where discarded clothing goes, it’s often landfill.

Energy

The two best options for large scale sustainable energy use are solar and wind.

Solar Power

Tesla Power wallTesla has created the Powerwall, a system to harness and store solar energy. Designed for domestic use sales were were high through last year, and this provides a good option for small scale use, but is limited when it comes to those of us living in apartments – I don’t have any roof space on which to install solar panels.

If solar panels on roofs aren’t a full at-scale solution what other surfaces could be used for solar panels? The Netherlands is midway through an experiment on using a solar bike path, results in terms of user testing are positive, although the surface probably isn’t strong enough for use on a roadway. However at a cost of about 3 million euro to build a 70m stretch of bike path we’re a long way from a convincing business case.

Wind Power

wind powerThe Netherlands has offshore windfarms, you fly over them if you’re arriving from the UK. I had naively thought that Europe was doing well on installing wind power as  form of renewable energy, but in fact China is doing better than any other country.

China is the biggest installer of new wind power capacity, installing about half of the new wind power capacity each year. In fact wind energy has become a major industry with at least six turbine companies.

We’ll need a much faster growth of renewable energy options in the west if we’re going to reduce our reliance on hydrocarbon energy forms. This matters for two reasons:

  • we will eventually run out of hydrocarbons, we’re already struggling to sustain supply without damaging our environment and resorting to fracking, arctic drilling and deep sea drilling in pristine environments.
  • the pollution from the use of hydrocarbons is poisoning our oceans, and our atmosphere.

What can you do? Reduce your energy consumption:

  • Take public transport
  • Ride a bike
  • Lower your central heating and put on a sweater
  • Insulate your house – even closing the curtains at night lowers the energy needed to heat your apartment.

Plastic

We have known for a long time that plastic (incidentally often made from oil) do not biodegrade and that they create pollution.  Plastic is a major component of landfill, and in our oceans it has created a floating rubbish patch in the north Pacific. There are municipal recycling schemes in Dutch cities to encourage recycling of plastic, but total plastic recycled is still less than 10%.

Some work has gone into making biodegradable plastics or packaging. The latest is an algae membrane used to package single serves of water, the packaging is even edible. It works as a single serve option but it’s a flawed solution, and will never replace the existing options.

What can you do to lower your plastic use?

  • carry a shopping bag
  • shop at a market that doesn’t package fruit/vegetables
  • carry a water bottle
  • avoid drinking straws and plastic packaging (I am sitting in a cafe that is making the change to no plastic, starting with paper straws)
  • more ideas on the Trash is for Tossers blog

Activism

Companies and governments change on the basis of what people want, eventually. I know it may seem hard to believe some days. So tell them.

  • refuse the plastic straw at the bar and say why
  • buy from companies who are sustainable
  • talk to companies about what they could do better: by phone, letter, email, Facebook or twitter
  • boycott companies that don’t improve – and tell them
  • support an NGO that works on sustainability issues with a donation, your time, your voice
  • tell others about companies and initiatives you’ve heard of that are sustainable.
  • recycle your rubbish
  • call on your city to provide recycling measures
  • call on business to support recycling measures

The Answer

There’s no easy answer here, everything we do has an impact on the planet, all we can do is make choices to reduce our impact. Reduce what we consume, re-use items, re-purpose others, recycle as much waste as we can.

And speak up, tell companies that you expect sustainable products, tell your elected officials that you want a world for the next generation, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after…

Image:  Earth  |  Kevin Gill  |  CC BY-SA-2.0