Can you say \”Tragedy of the Commons\”?

This is one of those things that always amuses me. The incredible blindness of a certain type of Greenie environmentalist to what economists and others have been saying about the economics of being a Greenie environmentalist.

Blindness to what even such Greenie environmentalists hold as one of their core beliefs actually.

The fashion for collecting wild mushrooms began with celebrity chefs such as Antonio Carluccio, and has been encouraged by those with a revived interest in local food, such as Jamie Oliver.

This year\’s wet summer and mild autumn has produced bumper crops of colourful wax caps, common ceps and luscious chanterelles.

But this new generation of foodies and foragers are beginning to trample the forests and fields that feed them – as well as many animals and insects, warn those who look after the UK\’s woodlands and nature reserves.

Concern is particularly high at some of the country\’s best-known beauty spots, including the New Forest, Epping Forest, and around the North Downs hills and the Chilterns.

It\’s one of the founding mantras of the whole \”oooh, look at pretty Gaia\” thing that there\’s a limit to nature. A limit to how quickly the biosphere can regenerate, how much we can take from nature without damaging the ability of nature to provide us with things in the future.

Yet it\’s these same people who profess to believe this who then go off yomping through the woods to pick all these natural foods. A poster boy for this could be George Monbiot and his kayaking for fish in Cardigan Bay.

For if two men and a dog go off and do this that\’s just fine. But when everyone who\’s seen the TV show with the wonderful wild mushroom omlette goes off to do it then the forests and fields are stripped of such.

It\’s the straight Tragedy of the Commons. The one thing that we really do know is absolutely and entirely true about environmental economics. Once demand for a natural good or service exceeds the ability unaided of that nature to supply it then we\’ve got to limit access somehow.

We just can\’t all go picking muchrooms, not unless there\’s a few farmers out there throwing manure into dark rooms and seeding it. You know, doing this invention of farming thing. And even then it\’s better to pick them up at the supermarket with the loo roll.

If it were the bastard capitalists doing the picking and the enviros shouting \”No!\” that I could understand. Even the other way around, the enviros doing it and the capitalist deploring it.

But it\’s this disconnect, almost to Murphy levels, of people adamantly insisting that nature has limits and then suggesting that 60 million people can live hunter gatherer lifestyles (even if only limited to mushrooms) on a small island that is so galling.

Shit, don\’t they realise that if we all went and collected out own firewood we\’d be like Easter Island by March?

12 thoughts on “Can you say \”Tragedy of the Commons\”?”

  1. Same with the whole “grow your own food” lark. In truth it is dawn to dusk back-breaking drudgery.

    If everyone did it, the land needs would rise, transport and distribution would atrophy and then when the eventual crop failure happens, the result is chaos, starvation and a breakdown in social order due to a lack of infrastructure.

    Cities do not starve during famines, because Cities are built to import all their foodstuffs and distribute it to everybody every hour of every day. Ah, but city dwellers are not quaint or “romantic” like those scratching the dirt.

  2. Bearing in mind the particular species of mushroom many of the greenies will be searching for, you expect rational thought on this argument?

  3. “We just can’t all go picking mushrooms…”

    ‘We’ were never meant to. ‘We’ were merely meant to marvel at the celebrichefs and then buy their new book.

  4. “But it’s this disconnect, almost to Murphy levels, of people adamantly insisting that nature has limits and then suggesting that 60 million people can live hunter gatherer lifestyles (even if only limited to mushrooms) on a small island that is so galling.”

    But they don’t see the disconnect because they believe extremely fervently that the population of the world should be cut back to the minimal levels. Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First! believes it. Ted Turner, founder of CNN believes it (though who’s going to watch his channel is something of another disconnect). Jonathon Porritt also believes that the UK’s population should be cut to 30m to be sustainable (

  5. I think that for many greenies the point is to reduce the population level to something that can be sustained. Which could also explain their love of Socialism, which has a really good track record for killing loads of people.

  6. Hmmm. This classic piece of Guardian eco-wibble seems much more about the updated version of “Get orf moi laaand” that characterises environmentalism than any serious impact on fungi populations. Look at the role call, in the piece you link to, of fake charities and quangos.

    In fact, it contains no data at all to show that fungi populations are affected in any noticeable way. As Matt Ridley pointed out in one of his books, the problem with the idea of the tragedy of the commons is that, in recorded history at least, there was no tragedy. Garrett Hardin’s opening is more quoted than the ending of his eponymous essay:

    “The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short.

    The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity” — and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.”

    Does that ring any bells?

    Tim adds: While I like Matt Ridley as much as the next guy (given that he quotes me and this blog in recent times, perhaps more…and he blurbed my book)….yes I know Hardin was originally talking about population and was wrong in what he applied the logic to. But there have been Commons tragedies…Grand Banks off Newfie is only one of quite a long list.

    Last year’s Nobel to Elinor Ostrom is only one example of quite how mainstream the thought now is in economics. Even if only the nutters apply it to population.

    Ridly’s most recent writings make the point that such problems seem only to have occured with renewable items as well, which is an interesting observation.

  7. Having lived for 20 years in rural France, may I suggest that the problem is not so much the mushroom hunters as their ignorance, hoicking out every specimen regardless of its state of putrifaction. In which case, no spores for next year.

  8. I thought Olstrom’s work showed, again, that there is no tragedy of the commons – that users manage resources perfectly adequately without intervention.

    Ridley’s comments on this were in The Origin of Virtue, I think. I’ll try to find a minute to look them up. Any pointers to his newer reflections on the subject?

    I’m not sure about the Grand Banks, will look it up, but feel you have been wrong when talking about North Sea fishing in these terms – when gov’t intervention requires 95% of catches to be chucked overboard, no other cause has a chance to be felt.

    I don’t deny there’s a theoretical problem here, just doubt it’s very common; perhaps Grand Banks aside, I don’t know of any examples. I do know that the English Commons were rooted in (unusual) property rights and were not overexploited. That’s just a fact. And the TotC is an idea that, in various forms, has been used to justify theft (the enclosures, for example). Theft is anti-property rights, not pro- them.

    In the case you cite here, fungi collection, there’s no evidence cited that there’s any problem at all.

    Tim adds: Hardin’s work doesn’t require that people haven’t managed (as Olstrom’s work has shown they often, but not always, do. Passenger pigeons and Buffalo, dodos, are ones where traditional patterns didn’t solve the problem….and Olstroms work is largely about which such system do work and which don’t. The major limitation seems to be number of participants. Above several thousand then traditional systems seem to fail) to solve these problems. And he doesn’t say that traditional systems don’t work. He only, at root, says that *some* system of management has to be imposed on the resource, whether legal, property rights, regulation, traditional, communal, whatever, if demand for the resource is outgrowing the ability of the resource to provide the service being demanded.

    The connection between this and the mushrooms is that those who cry for open access are exactly those who are now saying that there must be restrictions. For, yes, open access by too many people does lead to a Tragedy unless a system of management is imposed…..and yes, there are many possible systems of management, but we do have to use one of them. Open access fails under high demand.

    Kinder Scout is another example. The ramblers demanded open access. Recent years have seen access restrictions imposed because of erosion problems due to the number of people using that open access.

  9. Hang on – buffalo were deliberately wiped out. I doubt they were the only such large species, but most were pre-historic. Buffalo competed with cattle and so were exterminated. This has nothing to do with Commons.

    Is Kinder Scout a TotC or of overpopulation? After all, they’re not equivalent; Dodos weren’t casualties of over-population (but then, nor were they casualties of the Commons; island ecologies and tiny populations are fragile). Nigel Calder wrote a book in the 1970s (I expect he’d like to forget it exists, it’s a bit loopy) predicting the development of dense urban populations with rationed access to the country. Pure matter of over-population. Reduce the population while maintaining the management system (open access) and the prob goes away.

    And so on. Not one example is clearly that of a commons issue.

    But yes, the same people who call for open access also cry “get orf moi laand”, as I said in my first comment.

    It isn’t that open access fails under high demand, it’s that excessive demand must always produce some kind of failure. After all, excluding people from open spaces would not be a success. Exclusion of ordinary people from the wilds would be as much a failure as erosion. Except, perhaps, to those pre-Corn Law Tories you mentioned a few days ago.

    Tim adds: “it’s the idea that the self-interest of each agent exploiting a common resource is to take more than his or her share, and an arms race develops that denudes the resource.”

    Umm, yes, thus the need for management of a resource where there are sufficient agents so acting.

    That all the TofC is about.

    That isn’t what all have applied it to (see Hardin on population) to be sure, but that’s what the insight is.

    I think your complaint comes in two parts: what Hardin applied it to, as the first, which was wrong. Secondly, that only modern thinkers have understood it: not true, as all the traditional methods of dealing with this problem show.

    Like, for example, the feudal division of the rights to do this, that, the other, in the common lands. Who could have muchrooms was different from who could have firewood, pasturage, deer, because they were different resources which needed different management.

  10. Just to reiterate – the Tragedy of the Commons isn’t one of excessive demand for a resource that’s held in common; it’s the idea that the self-interest of each agent exploiting a common resource is to take more than his or her share, and an arms race develops that denudes the resource.

  11. No, those aren’t my complaints. They are:

    Harding suggested a theoretical problem was actual, even while admitting that it tended not to be (he acknowledged that traditonal societies developed methods to regulate the use of common resources), in order to grind a silly and authoritarian axe.

    The notion he articulated tends to be misapplied anyway (buffaloes, etc).

    Per our Nobel Prize winner, the people actually involved in the exploitation of the resource tend to sort it out without outside intervention.

    Outside intervention gives us things like 95% of fish catches being thrown overboard.

    In the case of mushrooms, there’s no evidence I’ve seen that a problem even exists.

    If Something Is Done For Our Grandchildren with respect to mushrooms, we’ll have some kind of quangofest, which I don’t want to see.

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