Commons Problems

If you want to talk about the environment or natural resources or about publicly available information or even privately held resources that are widely shared, you should recognize a concept that describes a well-researched and widely recognized problem. One of the economic terms used for resources of this type is “the commons”. These are things—land, water, air, ideas—which are widely available for use by almost anyone. Knowledge about the problem with the commons is therefore itself one of the resources within the commons. Still, many familiar theories about economics and the environment and human activities tend to ignore the commons problem. The knowledge is available to people who promote these theories, but they refuse to take advantage of it.

The problem with the commons is simply the problem of an unallocated resource: Anything that is freely available to everyone often gets overused or misused. Ranchers who have access to common grazing land tend to increase their herds beyond the carrying capacity of that land, the ability of the land to regrow forage. Farmers who have access to well water provided by an underground aquifer tend to expand their crops, and thus their extractions of water, beyond the natural ability of the aquifer to recharge itself. Industries that require access to land or flowing water to store or remove wastes, whether chemicals or surplus heat, tend to release more pollutants than can be controlled or dissipated by natural processes. Information that is in the public domain or widely available is not finite like natural resources, so it cannot be depleted by overuse, but it can be either misapplied or polluted by misinformation. Inevitably, when a resource becomes available to everyone it will attract those who will misuse it.

There are two primary solutions to this problem. One is to subdivide the commons and assign ownership. Land is the most obvious example of this method, but copyright law provides a similar function in the area of intellectual property. The theory behind personal ownership assumes that if someone owns something outright they will take care of it; they will maintain it so that it retains its value. In most cases, this is true, and you can see echoes of this assumption in arguments against government regulation. Farmers and ranchers argue that they are good stewards; they know better than anyone what is good for their land. Bank CEOs complain that controls on debt and investments limit their flexibility in managing their businesses. Taxpayers argue that they can make better decisions about how to spend their money than the government can.

Unfortunately, there are many egregious exceptions to the theory of responsible ownership. There are mining companies and factory operators, for example, that trash their own properties and then move on, leaving behind useless buildings and uninhabitable land and a former labor force that is not only impoverished but often saddled with job-related illnesses. There are landlords who allow their residential properties to deteriorate, valuing short-term income more than long-term sustainability or tenant safety. There are also some commercial operations that maintain and even improve their own facilities but that produce external effects such as releases of waste pollution and underpaid workers, elements that create damage both to the owned properties of other individuals and to the resources in the commons. In yet other cases, the owners of properties may be well-meaning, but they do not have the knowledge or the resources to properly avoid deterioration of their own holdings or negative external effects. Ownership provides no guarantees that resources will be properly used or maintained.

The second strategy for avoiding the misuse of the commons is regulation by knowledgeable authorities. In a few cases such regulatory enforcement can be provided by private-sector agreements such as industry-wide consortia or residential subdivision compacts, but the vast majority of controls must be provided by government. In the case of resources held in common, government regulation is virtually the only effective option. For that reason we have spent many decades building up hundreds of thousands of laws and regulations in attempts to control misuse of resources in the commons, rules generally created in response to specific negative experiences and public outcry for remediation. We have also put aside land in government reserves, in national parks and monuments, national forests, national conservation lands, wilderness areas, state and local parks, and other public holdings. During those same decades many wealthy and influential groups have been pushing continually to roll back such protections.

One of the most significant recent movements against government control of the commons was the Sagebrush Rebellion. Prominent in the western U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, Sagebrush demanded that Federal lands be turned over to state and local authorities and that environmental protections, such as those for wetlands and endangered species, be rolled back. In 1988 the Sagebrush Rebellion was largely replaced by the “wise use” movement, which has the same goals. Not surprisingly, much of the funding for Sagebrush and “wise use” activism and lobbying groups has come from resource extraction corporations (i.e., oil and gas, mining) and from representatives of agribusiness (i.e., the American Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Association). Their primary goal is to remove federal controls that limit commercial exploitation of lands held in common. They want the Federal government out of the way because state and local governments are generally more malleable and more responsive to industry lobbying, and more likely to sell land to private developers.

Land, at least, generally stays in one location. Water and air are resources that flow from the commons to private control and back again. Whatever a private “owner” does in their own operations on their own land can affect the lives of many others. That is why wetlands and clean air regulations, for example, are so important. In recent years we have seen widespread water pollution by oil spills and releases of mining and agricultural wastes, including record destructive red tide incidents in Florida caused by runoff of farm chemicals. There have been fatal localized levels of atmospheric chlorine and other toxic gases released in accidents. On the plus side, the United States has in recent years avoided the levels of air and water pollution commonly reported in China (similar to incidents that had been seen in the U.S. fifty years ago), but there are powerful interest groups that are working to remove the rules that have protected the commons. They argue for deregulation in the name of the “free market” and talk about “freeing up” land and water for human activities, but what they really want is to be released from many of the true costs of doing business, for example the costs of cleaning up after themselves. Or they want to make use of the resources of the commons without paying for them or restoring them afterward.

And this is the reality behind the protection of the commons. The commons is ours, it belongs to all of us and is used by all of us. In so many cases, it is vital to our lives, even the part of it that is composed of land that few of us will ever visit. Even if it is land under the jurisdiction of the Federal government—the feds don’t really “own” land—it is really ours. If it is water or air or wildlife, under nobody’s jurisdiction, it is also ours, in common. It all must be regulated by the only governmental entity large enough to act across state lines and to be responsive to all of us, not to an owner or owners. If it is turned over to private ownership or to uncontrolled use it will be lost to us; it will become subject to the limited goals of a small group, individuals likely motivated by narrow economic concerns rather than by the much wider goal of maintaining resources for all of us and for the future.

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