The tragedy of climate change

Why is there pollution?

Why is there an ecological crisis and why has it been so hard to deal with?

There is certainly no shortage of culprits – people have blamed neoliberalism, capitalism, consumerism, economic growth, overpopulation, evil corporations, greed. But underneath all the many aspects of this difficult problem lies one fundamental phenomenon: the Tragedy of the Commons.

This states that self-interest will lead to the depletion of an unmanaged, freely available resource, against everyone’s long-term interest. In an unmanaged fishery, each fisher has an incentive to catch as many fish as possible; if they don’t, another fisher will. Without cooperation between all parties, the fishery will be destroyed.

Not all commons lead to tragedy: some are well managed. Stereotype of the traditional English common, a widespread part of the feudal system.

It is one of those ideas that, once learned, you start to see everywhere, even in areas that are not purely economic. Voting, taxes, vaccination, rubbish, labour laws, health and safety, and human rights all share some of the features of the tragedy of the commons. They are all areas where progress has been made, slowly and with difficulty, in many countries. 

In climate change politics, the mechanism is constantly at work. Every country, every economic sector contains powerful voices arguing why someone else should cut emissions instead of them.

This conviction, that dealing with climate change means understanding and essentially solving the tragedy of the commons, led me to look deeper into the story of its discovery and spread. I found that – as befits a truly simply and universal phenomenon – it was discovered independently many times, first in 1833. But surprisingly, the idea did not stick or become widespread until quite recently. A 1980 paper described climate change as a tragedy of the commons in great detail and clarity: but it was ahead of its time, and no one noticed.

I tell this story in more detail – from Marco Polo to the present day – in the essay “Climate change is a fourfold tragedy” at Scientific American.

I’ll leave the last word to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about tragedy.

Robert McLachlan

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