Earth Day 2013

Celebrate Earth Day by reading about “Free Market Environmentalism.”  Here is a short essay on FME by Richard Stroup.  It starts this way:

Free-market environmentalism emphasizes markets as a solution to environmental problems. Proponents argue that free markets can be more successful than government—and have been more successful historically—in solving many environmental problems.

A book length treatment of FME can be found in Terry Anderson and Donald Leal’s classic Free Market Environmentalism.  Of course, everything I’ve ever read by Anderson has been thought-provoking, so check out his Amazon page (here) or the many resources at the website for Anderson’s wonderful (as I’ve seen first hand on several occasions) Property and Environment Research CenterKPC recommends reading this Anderson piece on property rights for Earth Day.

However, if you think property rights (and the markets that develop when property rights are well-defined and protected) are anti-environment, you might also want to think about what happens when land, water, and other natural resources are held in common.  One place to start is with Garrett Harding’s classic “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  There is certainly a lot in this piece to disagree with, but the following section is seminal – and useful for debunking a lot of the garbage you’ll usually hear on Earth Day:

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 numbers 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.

Hmmmm…..what might be the answer to this problem?

2 thoughts on “Earth Day 2013

  1. What is striking about Hardin’s paper is that the argument he generates is to explain why overpopulation is a commons problem requiring resolution by e.g. regulating having children. But, long since, that is just not the problem is was taken to be when Hardin wrote it, and none of the measures he thought would be necessary turned out to be.

  2. I’ve been meaning to get my hands on Terry Anderson’s and P.J. Hill’s The Not So Wild, Wild West. I did have the opportunity to sit through a few lectures/powerpoint presentations by Dr. Hill, and exchange a few interesting emails with him a year or two ago. I’m here in Montana, so I’m also fairly familiar with PERC and FREE (run by Mr. Hardin’s co-author for the book Managing the Commons, John Baden, whom I helped interview for a film once).

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