Tragedy of the Open-Access Commons
“There is no short-term profit incentive in sound environmental stewardship”
Our current economic system encourages maximizing financial assets and flows of money measurable as GDP, while ignoring the care of the living systems on which the economy depends. Tragically, there is no short-term profit incentive in sound environmental stewardship.
We also too often succumb to social traps, where local or individual short-term incentives that guide behavior are inconsistent with healthy long-term goals. Cigarette and drug addiction, overuse of pesticides, economic boom and bust cycles, privatization of information, and overfishing are all good examples of these social traps.
They all have this in common: by following short-term feel-good road signs, over the long term critical resources get exploited and a system is eventually weakened to the point of collapse. The only way to eliminate these social traps is to modify reinforcement systems.
Ideally, a truly democratic government assumes this role — while maintaining as much individual freedom as possible — through education, regulations, and legal means.
But in a market economy, resources for which access is difficult to restrict — open oceans, Earth’s atmosphere, and wildlife that crosses national boundaries — are frequently overexploited.
Overfishing, for example, is far more likely in an open-access fishery than in a fishery managed as a common resource.
The global climate-regulating system is also a great example of a global resource in desperate need of commons-management institutions.
For centuries, industrializing nations have dumped carbon dioxide — a by-product of fossil-fuel combustion — and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with no regard for the impact on the climate system as a whole.
This legacy load of historical emissions dumped into the atmosphere, primarily from the nations of the industrialized Global North, are responsible for the bulk of today's global warming.
To avoid this tragedy of the open-access commons requires the existence and enforcement of boundaries.
This may mean that the role of governments would need to be expanded beyond their current role in merely regulating and policing the private market economy.
Governments could have a significant role to play in expanding the commons sector, which could manage non-marketed natural-capital assets and social-capital assets.
They could also help develop new common-ownership models at various levels of scale that are not driven by short-term, for-profit corporate interests.
Unfortunately, we humans are not evolutionarily wired to concern ourselves with the future effects of choices made today. This future discounting explains our collective failure to adequately respond to the disturbing trends we are observing today from our unrestrained pursuit of short-term profits and power.