Darwin's Theories Blog

New Theories for a New Time

The real Tragedy of the Commons

Might not be what you think

The greatest tragedy of the commons of all time is not, as some used to think, the "commons" fields in England, from whose overgrazing by livestock the term originated.

No, the greatest "tragedy of the commons" of all time is the world around us. It’s in the way we have allowed our rivers, our lakes, our oceans and our atmosphere to be used as dumping grounds. Toxic chemicals pour into all of those fluid sinks every day: poisons in the water harm marine life (some of which we later eat); garbage in the air is scarring our lungs and our brains, shortening our lives, and disrupting our climate.

And it’s in the way we treat our fishing stocks as one big free-for-all. The oceans are viewed as a source of plunder: many countries allow unlimited fishing in their waters, and there is no serious regulation for international waters. We did not learn from the collapse of the Canadian cod fishing industry the lesson that fish are finite. As I write this, mega-fishing factories are vacuuming up marine life just off (reportedly) the maritime boundaries of the Galapagos Islands, which will shortly destroy that enclave’s biological stability by removing the fish that some birds depend on. The rippple-on effects will be devastating, though they may take years to show up.

I don’t have the solution in my back pocket, but I know there are clever people working on all these issues. I hope they are listened to.