Archive for the ‘tragedy of commons’ Category

A Human-Precipitated Mass-Extinction?; a libertarian discussion of preferences about things unowned

July 16th, 2009 No comments

For the benefit of the curious and/or idle reader, I`m cross-posting from my little-used personal blog a short post on the above topic and the ensuing conversation.

(I note that my inaugural post at this LvMI-hosted blog covered a related topic:   “Too Many or Too Few People? Does the market provide an answer?“.)


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Planet’s First-Ever Mass-Extinction Precipitated by Humans

Should we be alarmed at the current massive die-offs being noted in the animal and plant kingdoms? After all, new species arise and old species die off all the time. Its just nature taking its course, right? Not necessarily. What’s different about this die-off is that this is the only such event precipitated by a biotic agent: humans.

read more

posted by TokyoTom at 1:35 AM
James Rothfeld said…
Wrong. One of the largest extinctions in the history of our earth was when oxygen from photosynthetic life forms began to reach levels that were toxic for anaerobic life forms. Granted, the victims were mostly bacteria and some other simple life forms, but – extinction is extinction.

So, humans are not the first biotic agent to lead to massive extinctions.

4/23/2009 01:43:00 AM  


TokyoTom said…

James, thanks for honoring me with a visit and comment.

Of course, I mainly blog at LVMI – – and I`m not really quite sure what I did that caused this post (which is the intro to a longer piece that I didn`t write) to go up, but in any case I appreciate the engagement.

You have a valid point about the great switch from anaerobic to aerobic life, which many people seem to forget about, but:

– obviously the main comparison is which other great extinction events (caused by meteors/ volcanic/ climate events) that affected complex vertebrate and other life, not archaea or bacteria;

– the event you speak of actually CONTRIBUTED to the development of more complex life;

– there is plenty of anaerobic life still around and being discovered (even in rocks miles down), and we really have very little idea as to whether the switch to aerobic life caused any kind of massive loss of anaerobic species; and

– what we are now doing to the oceans – via “dead zones” resulting from fertilizer run-off and further changes expected from warming and pH changes will result in areas not “dead”, but occupied by less complex abearobic bacterial communities.

4/23/2009 03:20:00 AM  


James Rothfeld said…
Now you are weaseling out, Tom! You did not specify that you were only referring to complex vertebrae, but only seemed to talk about extinctions in general. I think this is arbitrary and obfuscates the point: the point is that extinctions are caused by all kinds of events, and at the time of the event, they are not horrible for most life forms (horrible being a function of going extinct).

The argument that the aerobic extinction contributed to more complex life forms does not really get us anywhere, since there is no reason to assume that higher life could not emerge out of anaerobic life. What can be said is that the aerobic extinction contribute to the emergence of complex aerobic life, but that’s simply proving the assumption, or whatever logical fallacy we are dealing with here. The likely reason anaerobic life is rather simple these days is that it is forced to live in rather confined environs, including the gut of aerobic life.

The world’s oceans seem to have passed through a number of anoxic events, and those life forms that made it through the malaise probably did quite nicely as competition was greatly reduced. I’m sure life as such will make it quite nicely through the next one as well. Whether we humans will make it through it remains to be seen, though I am actually quite optimistic (pessimistic??) that they will. In smaller numbers, but nonetheless.

I think it is too early to judge whether or not the current extinction will in fact be a disaster. I am in fact not even convinced we are really going through a particularly dramatic extinction – the claim about dozens or even hundreds of species going extinct is based on some pretty speculative reasoning.

As far as I know, there have only been about 300 or so documented extinctions in the last few centuries. I also don’t think the the extinction of species limited to very small local habitats should really be counted: if the only place you can find a particular animal is a small island or a specific mountain, I suggest the species is done for no matter what.

I also don’t think that anybody has yet established a relationship between species extinction and human survival (and don’t start with the buffalos – the populations at First Contact were human artifacts).

But, back to the dead-zones in the oceans: I am amused that few ecologists have yet made the link between agricultural subsidies and fertilizer run-off. The link is so blatant and in your face, this oversight is almost telling.

In any case, I came by your blog because that’s where clicking on your name at Crash Landing gets me.



4/23/2009 06:32:00 AM  


TokyoTom said…
James, I was not weaselling out, but expanding on a point that you also acknowledged: “Granted, the victims were mostly bacteria and some other simple life forms.”

The fact that remains that if there is a wave of extinctions underway as a result of the rise of opportunistic and technological man (with various man-related extinctions starting millenia ago), this is clearly different from prior catastrophic extinctions, which resulted from external physical impacts on the planet. That`s the comparison being made, and reference to the initial shift to oxic life forms is interesting, but irrelevant.

“there have only been about 300 or so documented extinctions in the last few centuries. “

This of course tells us little, since even now we have no comprehensive catalog of life.

“I also don’t think the the extinction of species limited to very small local habitats should really be counted: if the only place you can find a particular animal is a small island or a specific mountain, I suggest the species is done for no matter what.”

I fear you are right as to the “no matter what”, but your conclusion that the extinction of localized species “shouldn`t count” is a value judgment. Good Austrians will recognize that others have equally valid preferences. Biologists and others familiar with the dimishing diversity of life express a deep sense of loss.

4/23/2009 11:50:00 AM  


James Rothfeld said…
Tom – I was just teasing about the weaseling in any case. What I am trying to get at is your last point: whether or not any of this is good or bad is in the eye of the beholder. Every activity has externalities – whether good or bad depends on the judgment of those affected, physically or otherwise, including emotionally.

So, yes, localized species extinction is certainly not good for the species affected or those who care about them. Maybe the world would be a better place with dodos and woolly mammoth in it, but maybe not. Who can tell?

I’m sure nomads think settled societies with their strict geographic borders stink, but farmers have little sympathy for dirty herders and their stomping herds.

Will the world be worse off if the only life forms to survive are those that serve human needs? Aesthetically, I would say no, but then again, those who will live in such a world will hardly miss what they have never known.

I don’t lose sleep because there are no more Aurochs, even though I think they were really amazing animals. I also don’t miss the dinosaurs, though other might differ.

In the end, it’s all a question of preference – and who am I to say that my preferences are any more worthwhile than those of others.

Here’s another question I was wondering about, by the way, and it’s serious – if a change in technology would bring about economic ruin for a particular region and its population, simply because it would make their only product useless, would the inventor/users of this technology have to compensate the people who were damaged? Would the users of word processing software have to compensate print employees for lost jobs? Would users of the internet have to compensate newspaper workers for lost jobs? I’m not being funny, it’s an important question that is directly relevant for the question of property rights in the context of environmental change. I am sure you see the relevance. I have no real answer to this (except gut opinion). Any thoughts?

4/24/2009 05:48:00 AM  


TokyoTom said…
“Maybe the world would be a better place with dodos and woolly mammoth in it, but maybe not. Who can tell?”

I agree completely that this is a question of human judgment. However, we should acknowledge that we are bumping some species off the planet and squeezing others drastically (and many to a completely unknown degree).

“Will the world be worse off if the only life forms to survive are those that serve human needs?”

Are you confident that the species that don`t survive don`t serve human needs? Many we simply have no clue about, while others, such as whales, dodos, passenger pigeons, Steller sea cows and numerous crashed/crashing fisheries have been extinguished and are threatened not because of lack of utility, but simply because nobody owned them.

How much more shall we destroy, for want of investment in property rights/commons management?

” would say no, but then again, those who will live in such a world will hardly miss what they have never known.”

Only partly true, as some of the world that we have been losing has been and will be documented.

“would the inventor/users of this technology have to compensate the people who were damaged?”

Not in a libertarian order. But I fail to see the relevance to “environmental” problems, either those that involve activities that damage the persons or property of others, or damage resources that are communally owned or are owned under regimes that fail to protect the resources. Care to clarify?

5/19/2009 01:04:00 PM  


James Rothfeld said…
My basic point is that every action has effects at least one person would perceive as injurious to their well-being, and would prefer that it rather not happen. If we were to refrain from all such actions, we would probably lose the freedom to act at all. Fundamentally, I want to argue that a ‘negative externality’ that cannot be dealt within a libertarian order has to be simply accepted as a given along the lines of ‘shit happens’.
If we cannot find a non-libertarian solution to an environmental problem, than so be it. That’s my only point. Nothing more, nothing less. Which is why I agree that in a libertarian order it’s your tough luck that you lose your job because somebody else is smarter. It also means that if, for example, people using a specific aquifer cannot agree on a libertarian solution to its management simply have to suck it up. Or that if I live on a nice piece of land with a pretty view, and my neighbor erects an ugly building with garish design elements spoiling my aesthetic enjoyment, I’ll have to suck it up – unless the two of us can agree on a solution.
I think some environmental problems have no libertarian solution. I don’t know which they are, but maybe we simply have to accept that.
For example, there may be no libertarian solution to fighting asteroids about to hit our planet. Maybe we could collectively deal with it, but maybe not enough people can be bothered – or believe in it – and so the few who care simply have to deal with the fact that they will die, well-knowing that a solution was at hand.

To repeat the point: in my hierarchy of needs, freedom comes before security. If the price of freedom is to live in a world that will experience dramatic changes in climate, and if the only way to avoid is were to give up my personal freedom – then I’ll accept the dramatic changes in climate.

That’s my only point.

5/20/2009 09:55:00 AM  


TokyoTom said…
Thanks for the clarifications, James.

I`m not so far away from you, but come to different conclusions: where there are obvious commons problems, those who care about the problem should obviously work to resolve them.

This includes libertarians who are personally most interested in individual freedom, freedom that is imperilled by the state-heavy “solutions” that often underlie the problem (to the benefit of entrenched insiders) in the first place.

Far from leaving the field of battle to others, libertarian ought to be proactively trying to mediate, lest what they value most highly be trampled.

5/20/2009 10:51:00 AM  


 James Rothfeld said…
Seems we ran out of disagreements ūüôā
5/20/2009 09:47:00 PM  

Searching for common ground: In which I provide a partial defense of Ron Bailey`s "invisible hand of population control" thesis

June 22nd, 2009 No comments

Michael Tobis, a blogging climate scientist, kindly alerted me to his criticisms of Ron Bailey`s recent Reason post.

Here is my response to Michael:

Michael, thanks for the link and for twitting it to my attention.

I`m not sure you really want to get me started, but I won`t let that get in the way.

of course, it`s regrettable that those on the left and right would both
rather fight than think seriously. There`s alot of middle ground, but
you can`t get there in war of words. I`ve criticized Ron for this,
but he deserves credit for accepting climate science and expressly
acknowledging and analyzing tragedy of the commons situations.

I think you have found an infelicitly stated portion of his piece,
clearly he`s trying to say that social collapse in the past might be
attributable to tragedy of the commons situation (where “proper
institutions for channeling individual striving into a process of
economic growth which ultimately promotes the public interest” were not
in place).

While there are other cause of collapse – wars,
climate shifts, disasters – do you really disagree with Ron`s point
that societies are vulnerable to collapse if they don`t establish
institutions that prevent ruinous exploitation of resources?

Ron focusses on economic freedom and rule of law (market institutions)
as checks on tragedies of the commons, he is familiar with (and
libertarians certainly accept) traditional, community-based property
rights systems can work just fine, though increasing demand (and use by
outsiders) might swamp them, or technology might make private property
more efficient.

I think that Ron is perfectly correct to note
that property rights and market institutions in free societies are
serving to check population growth.

The chief problem, of course
is that there are huge gaps outside individual Western countries: Where
are the property rights in the atmosphere, the oceans, the tropical
forests? As a result, we are steadily destroying whatever we can get
out hands on.

The related problem is that corrupt and/or inept
governments are often in the middle of these problems: e.g., the
Newfoundland cod fishery was destroyed under Canadian government
management, West coast salmon fisheries are similarly threatened, and
tropical forests are being converted to soybeans and oil palm because
governments don`t care to protect the rights of the natives who dwell
in them.

(The way governments fail libertarians are rather
attuned to; while it may grate to hear this after the gross
mismanagement of the Bush/neocon/Republicans, perhaps even liberals can
acknowledge that they have a point, even if they don`t want to listen
to fear of “socialism” from the right.)

Finding institutions to
end destructive exploitation and manage open-access commons is a real
struggle; Bailey points in the right direction for some solutions, but
he downplays the size of the task ahead and the need for those who care
to work at solutions.

More of my thoughts here:

Too Many or Too Few People? Does the market provide an answer?

Using the State to solve common resource problems?

Mises on fixing externalities: progress along the Kuznets curve is not magic, but the result of institution-building



To Ron Bailey: yes, an "invisible hand" controls population, but property rights & rule of law are not universal and, as Mises noted, require effort

June 19th, 2009 No comments

Ron Bailey, science correspondent at ReasonOnline, has a very useful post up that outlines how markets and the institutions that underpin them explain declining fertility in Western societies, and that suggest grounds for optimism when looking at population growth  in the developing world.

However, he leaves a few things out in his ongoing effort to show that the “Neo-Malthusians” are wrong to worry about population, including the following:

  • the West lies at the end of the demand chains that have swamped both unowned commons in the oceans and traditional, community-based property rights systems in developing nations (and that have fuelled kleptocrats for decades);
  • as developing nations grow, until clear and effective property rights systems are established, they will put stresses similar to those that the West did on open-access commons – including on the climate system as their fossil fuel use grows; and
  • establishing property rights and other institutions conducive to markets and wealth don`t spring up magically, but take time and concerted effort (and leave gaps), as Ludwig von Mises noted- and which is the lesson of the “Kuznets” environmental curve.

I remarked on some these in the following, which I posted (or tried to) at Ron`s comment thread:

Ron, in general I think your post is insightful and helpful, as it points the way to property rights and rule of law as ways that human societies can improve their well-being while controlling their population via the choices of individuals. This provides a fruitful focus for all participants in the discussion, including both the “conservative” and the “envirofacist” nature-lover poles.

However, for me at least it`s not a new insight (I studied some population dynamics, carrying capacity & sygmoid growth curves, was long familiar w/ Hardin & noticed in the 80s that the places where pop growth was highest was where property wasn`t adequately protected.

And you might not have not have noticed, but decades before Hardin, Ludwig von Mises explained how environmental problems arise from the lack of clear, appropriate and enforceable property rights.

More importantly, I think you fail to address both the West`s role in ongoing environmental destruction outside of their countries and the need for those concerned about environment and human welfare to continue to push and contend – both property rights on the supply side, and management (consumer pressure, boycotts etc.) are still needed on the demand side. I blogged on this two years ago, here: Too Many or Too Few People: Does the market provide an answer?“.

There are real problems and they aren`t magically solved (as Tierney seems to think, a la Kuznets). Mises pointed not only at the problem of externalities, but also at the transitions that societies make, deliberately or through changes in customs, to reduce externalities.

There is a lot of hard work ahead of us, and preferences and initiative matter greatly. I appreciate your efforts to educate and to push the ball forward.

Sincerely, Tom

Capitalism, the destructive exploitation of the Amazon and the tragedy of the government-owned commons

May 25th, 2009 5 comments

Searching for solutions to problems is admirable, but the effectiveness of such efforts will be limited if they are based on a faulty or incomplete understanding of the problem.  

Many of those who have some familiarity with the “tragedy of the commons” paradgim outlined by Garrett Hardin can identify a free-for-all when they see one, but fail to understand the perverse role that governments often play in perpetuating such situations.  While there may be a productive role that government can play in ameliorating destructive exploitation, it is undeniable government involvement can be counterproductive as well.

Further, while modern markets and technological advances certainly increase the pressures on “common”, open-access resources, trying to change “capitalism” or “global trade” systems may be much less productive than addressing the institutional failure at the location of the particular resource.

These thoughts come to mind in connection with ongoing discussions regarding the application of the “tragedy of the commons” paradigm to fisheries and to climate change.  Unfortunately, what passes for discussion on climate change (and other environmental issues) is too often people talking past each other (frequently with all of the hallmarks of a tribal battle):  some correctly see a looming commons problem that they believe requires government regulation but ignore the risks of pork, partiality and wasted resources in the policies themselves, while others, not anxious for government to expand its regulatory purview, downplay or dismiss the resource problem and focus on the downsides of government action or the motives of those calling for government action (while ignoring those invested heavily in a status quo that is replete with moral hazard).

To further illustrate, I take the liberty of copying below portions of a discussion with Myanna  Lahsen at Roger Pielke, Jr.`s Prometheus blog in 2007 (emphasis added):

Concluding paragraph of the linked Lahsen & Nobre paper:

“While solutions to sustainability problems in the Amazon in some cases might be found through technology, the problems themselves are responses to national- and global global level economic structures that perpetuate poverty, ignorance, and unsustainable, short-sighted extractive approaches to natural resource management. To truly understand and address environmental degradation in the Amazon, one must thus strengthen understanding and recognition of the connections between sustainability problems and global and regional structures of power and inequality, including the impact of capitalism and liberal globalization on environmental practices, standards and policies (Bunker, 1985; Campos Mello, 2001). Unsustainable uses of the Amazon, and the associated land-related violence, human rights violations and exploitation in the region, are influenced directly or indirectly by global markets in (and, hence, global consumption of) export commodities such as soybeans, meat and timber. Recognition of such connections render evident that the causes of local-level problems in the Amazon and their solutions are, in practice, far from purely local, suggesting that the most deep-cutting solutions depend on systemic changes at the global level.

Ms. Lahsen, allow me to make a few comments. Roger has just steered me here from a different thread.


1. I think you are absolutely correct that the incentive structures of funding institutions and the individual incentive structures of the scientists involve are key reasons why so little applied science connected to developing sustainable practices in the Amazon has come out of the LBA. But they are not the only reasons.

Few scientists take naturally to politics. Even when important public policy issues are at stake, the efficacy of those scientists who do choose to step into the policy arena may be severely limited, as is clear from the climate change debate in the US. Decision-makers act or delay action based upon perceptions of self-interest and the interests of constituencies they identify with.

Scott Saleska alludes to this when he refers to the travails of Hansen and the changing official agenda of NASA.

This problem is even more acute in the Amazon, where land tenure and land use practices are highly politicized, and where speaking out in ways that affect the strongest interest groups is outright dangerous, not merely to one’s career, but to one’s health.

2. There are plenty of scientists who engage in applied science – but mainly with respect to fields of application where there is a strong demand from the private market. I suspect that the only area where applied science is in significant demand in the Amazon is for agricultural science and technology in the areas that have been converted to soybean farms. Interest in silvaculture and ecosystem protection may grow if groups interested in preserving forests or growing trees can find a greater voice, both politically and legally.

3. In your conclusion, you rightly refer to international factors that fuel “sustainability problems” (viz., deforestation) in the Amazon, but these are very thinly sketched out and deserve greater attention. But even more importantly, I think you misunderstand the relative importance of the various institutional failures that are driving the destruction of the Amazon, and are wrong to conclude that “the most deep-cutting solutions depend on systemic changes at the global level”.

While global markets create incentives for some to cut and export logs and others to burn forests and raise cattle or crops for export, the rest of the developed world faces the same the markets and still does not destroy its forests – in fact, forests are growing in the north. Trying to tackle Amazonian deforestation by destroying export markets, “capitalism” or “liberal globalization” is simply Quixotic (if not counterproductive), and the implication that embargoes should be placed against Brazilian products derived from forest destruction are objectionable not only on grounds of practicality but morally – shall we beggar Brazilians to protect the forests that we find more valuable than they do?

The principal problem is simply that by and large nobody owns the forests in the Amazon (or in other tropical ares), or where there are indigenous peoples and others who do, these rights cannot be effectively enforced. Most of the Amazon is government owned, but the government does not care (and is probably incapable even if it desired) to protect its forests against politically well-connected cattle and farming interests. As is frequently the case when the government “owns” resources, those resources are very vulnerable to depredations by national elites.

The result in the Amazon is that forests are essentially a free resource that can be easily taken from the public treasury and converted into private wealth – and local interests that wish to protect forests (from rubber tappers like Chico Mendez to indigenous peoples and their sympathizers, like priests and nuns) are dealt with brutally and with essential impunity , as you have recognized. Like the open and secretive ways that fossil fuel interests have made efforts to protect their free use of the open-access atmosphere, we can expect that entrenched interests in Brazil will try to forestall measures that eliminate their free plundering of public forests and forests titled to the powerless.

While there is indeed a problem that there is no mechanism presently in place by which wealthier nations could pay Brazil to protect the Amazon, such steps are being discussed, but will still require effective enforcement on the ground to be at all meaningful.

Accordingly, rather than looking to “systemic changes at the global level”, one should recognize that the causes of local-level problems in the Amazon and their solutions are, contrary to your conclusion, in all tractable senses purely local to Brazil [and other Amazonian countries].

The destructive exploitation of the Amazon is a paradigmatic case for the problems of sustainable development everywhere. To have wealthy societies, we must have instititions that eliminate destructive exploitation by establishing clear and enforceable rights (whether private, collective or public) to property.

This means that one effective investment in research will be towards low-cost technology that helps resource owners on the ground to identify their property, to provide warnings of trespassers, and evidence that can be used to bring private or public proceedings to protect property.



Posted by: TokyoTom at January 17, 2007 10:36 PM

Dear Tom,
You frame the problem as a strictly local one, and we beg to differ.
Global consumption patterns drive natural resource use. Growing demand for soybeans in China, and to feed cattle in Europe in the wake of the mad cow disease scares, is centrally driving soybean production in the Amazon, for instance, which has greatly accelerated deforestation in the Amazon in recent years. The oscillations in deforestation rates correlate closely with the prices of soybeans on global markets.

Yet another global, systemic cause of deforestation as well as human rights abuses in the Amazon is neoliberalism, which has weakened national governments, especially in Latin America, as we mention this in the paper and back up by reference to scholarly studies.

Finally, we take issue with your suggestion that “The principal problem is simply that by and large nobody owns the forests in the Amazon.” As indicated in critiques of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” theory, private property is not a solution. Indeed, much of the destruction of the Amazon is on private lands.


Myanna Lahsen and Carlos A. Nobre

Posted by: Myanna Lahsen at March 6, 2007 09:11 AM

Hi Mayanna,

You write, “Finally, we take issue with your suggestion that “The principal problem is simply that by and large nobody owns the forests in the Amazon.” As indicated in critiques of Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” theory, private property is not a solution. Indeed, much of the destruction of the Amazon is on private lands.”

Here’s a website that says:

“In Brazil, 65 percent of forested area is in public hands, but the proportion reaches 75 percent in the Amazon region. According to Azevedo, the new law, accused of “privatising” the forests, seeks precisely the opposite: to combat de facto privatisation through illegal means. Currently, more than 80 percent of illegal lumber production comes from public lands.”

So that website is saying 75 percent of the forested area in the Amazon region is in public hands, and that 80 percent of illegal lumber production comes from public lands.

Do you disagree with either of those numbers? If so, what do you think the numbers should be?


Posted by: Mark Bahner at March 6, 2007 07:24 PM

Oops. This is the website that had those figures on land ownership and illegal logging:

Posted by: Mark Bahner at March 6, 2007 07:29 PM

Myanna and Carlos:

Many thanks for the response.

However, you misinterpret me. First, I have NOT said that the problem is a strictly local one, and I completely agree that global consumption patterns are closely tied to natural resource use. Any rational observer of the international economy will see not only that market economies are great at creating wealth where private transaction occur relating to OWNED resources, but are also great at the destructive exploitation of resources that are not effectively owned or protected.

The Amazon is a classic case of the latter. There are essentially two possible approaches to the problem – one can try to put a stick in the gears of the global markets for foreign resources (by destroying export markets, global “capitalism”, “liberal globalization” or “neoliberalism”), or one can focus on trying to ensure that Amazonian forests are more effectively owned and protected.

Which of those seems to you like a more manageable task? (And if you chose the former, don’t forget the ethical questions I posed to you on them.)

I don’t think that the problem is an easy one at all, and I commend you both for trying to tackle it. However, I think that solutions, if any are to be found before the Amazon is gutted, will most likely be found in trying to ways to help people on the ground identify and protect resources that are important to them – and in trying to co-opt the wealthy elites who are essentially plundering Brasilians’ “national wealth” by using brazen physical power.

How can this be done? Imaginative people can think of many ways. A few come immediately to mind. One is to push the Brasilian government (and foreign aid agencies) to stop subsidizing the development of physical infrastructure like roads and power, so that those who would profit from destruction have to pay all of their own costs. It would help to identify clearly those who are converting forests, but this is not strictly necessary if taxpayers can be made aware that they are being fleeced twice – in the theft of government property and in the subsidization of it. Perhaps the government could even be persuaded to get out of the land ownership business altogether, and have all of the land auctioned off to the highest bidders. Police forces, courts, land registration offices and technologies that help identify land and trespass would all be beneficial. Markets can also be harnessed to tap “green” demand for sustainably owned and maintained resources, thus further empowering natives.

Please also understand that I am not advocating solely “private” ownership. Community ownership of resources may be quite effective. But government ownership of resources is simply a recipe for those resources to be ripped off – literally or figuratively – by those with the best politcal connections/the powerful, and at the expense of the little guy/disenfranchised.

Some focus on the demand side can also work – if PR light can be shed on the home economy firms colsest to the exploitation. But this is very difficult to do, as one purchaser can easily be replaced by another, and there’s always the Chinese, who really don’t care what we might have to say.

I’m happy to expand/expound further if you’re inclined.

Posted by: TokyoTom  at March 16, 2007 05:40 AM


For crashing fisheries, a coalition of mainline US enviro groups calls for …. property rights!

January 15th, 2009 No comments

In a recent post, Andy Revkin, a New York Times reporter who blogs on energy and environmental issues at his “Dot Earth” blog, asks “When whale species, like the minke, are no longer rare, can they be both admired and eaten — as North Americans do with bison — or is it simply wrong to kill whales at all?”

In a comment in response, I noted that as whales are unowned, the problem of how to manage whale stocks shares much in common with the problem of ocean fisheries – viz., open access tragedies of the commons, and politicized management – further noted that the main US environmental groups have very clearly recognized, somewhat surprisingly, that implementing property rights systems is vital to ensuring the long-term protection of fisheries.

Mainline enviros pushing for property rights?  Has the world gone crazy?

I copy below my comment, which quotes the key fisheries statement by the enviro coalition (emphasis added):

Andy, of course the real problem with whales, bluefin tuna and most other ocean resources is that no one owns them, so catching them for one dinner plate or another is frequently a classic tragedy of the commons or, if governments regulate catch, a race to catch within season all while trying to make sure limits are not set too low.

This is the reason why whaling stocks crashed and whalers agreed to a moratorium. The fact that whales remain unowned but further takings are decided by a committee of nations is what ties the dispute to a political process – a process that frankly serves no one’s long-term interest and is a distraction from the more important problems of protecting crashing ocean fisheries in general.

The clear way forward is in establishing rights to the particular stock of whales or fish, so that those who value the resource can invest in protecting it. This holds true just as much for whales as for fish.

This is what the organization Defying Ocean’s End (cofounded by Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Ocean Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, The World Conservation Union, and World Wildlife Fund) has to say about protecting fish:…

“Overfishing, high bycatch rates, the use of gear types that damage habitat (like trawls and dredges), and the large subsidies supporting fisheries (totally over $15 billion per year) are all symptoms of an underlying problem. In most fisheries that are exhibiting declines in landings and revenues, overfishing, bycatch, and habitat damage, actions that result in the symptoms are actually rational given the way the fisheries are managed. In these fisheries, secure privileges to catch certain amounts of fish are not specified, so naturally individual fishermen compete to maximize their individual shares of the catch. No incentives for conservation exist in this situation, because every fish conserved can be caught by another fisherman. The competition to maximize catch often results in a fishery “arms race”, resulting in the purchase of multiple vessels, the use of powerful engines and large vessels, and the use of highly efficient gear like trawls. Capital costs for vessels and gear increase as a result. At the same time, the competition to maximize catch often results in supply gluts, as most fishermen land large catches at the same time during seasons that become shorter and shorter due to the excessive number of vessels participating in the fishery. Prices paid to fishermen are reduced by the glut, and the quality of fish supplied to consumers declines as well (from fresh to frozen). The non-market costs associated with this kind of behavior — such as habitat damage, overfishing, and bycatch — are passed on to the fishery and onto society as a whole.

“Most of the solutions that have been implemented or proposed to fix the world’s fisheries center on command-and-control measures: regulators or courts telling fishermen how to fish through the imposition of controls on effort (e.g., fishing vessel length, engine horsepower, gear restrictions, etc.). Prescriptions like these work against strong economic incentives for maximizing catch, which are not addressed by such measures, and are of course usually resisted by fishermen. Often, prescriptions create incentives for “work-arounds” and set up a cat-and-mouse game between fishermen and regulators – for example, if regulators impose a restriction on vessel size, fishermen may purchase two vessels to maintain high catch levels.

As in most natural resource problems, more effective solutions will address the fundamental drivers of unsustainable fisheries. In this case, the key necessary reform will be to designate secure catch privileges. It is important to understand that such privileges can be allocated to different kinds of entities in different ways, and indeed, they should be tailored to specific fisheries and communities to fit with local customs, traditions, values, and social structure.”

FWIW, I’ve blogged on whales and fishing any number of times:……

The problem of crashing fisheries is a far greater one than what to do about whales, so it is a real shame that the environmental community, Japan (which consumes much of the world’s fish) and other nations cannot see fit to bury the hatchet – at least on whale populations that are growing (perhaps by applying a property rights regime that would allocate ownership rights not only to whaling fleets but to conservation groups) – and work together on setting up sustainable, property-rights based harvesting regimes on imperilled ocean fisheries.

Somali piracy flows from the greater and continuing Western theft and abuse of Somali marine resources

January 7th, 2009 3 comments

The January 4 Huffington Post carries a perceptive column by Johann¬†Hari, a writer for the Independent , who explains that Somali¬†piracy (which I have commented on here¬†and here)¬†has¬†roots¬†in¬†the Western theft and abuse of Somali marine resources –¬†in the form of¬†ongoing massive Western and Asian¬†fishing and illegal dumping of toxic waste along the 3300 km Somali coast –¬†and in efforts by Somali fishermen¬†to respond (even as such piracy has now morphed into an industry in its own¬†right, and not closely connected to the suffering fishing industry).

Hari’s post raises difficult questions about the ownership and¬†management of open-access resources, and the obligations (if any) of¬†Western governments to make sure that such resources are not plundered merely¬†because local peoples are unable to defend them.¬† (A report by a Canadian¬†observer to a 1998 UN mission provides background information and raised these¬†issues here.)

While neocons and others make rousing cries for¬†Western governments to¬†stiffen their spines at the impudent pirates (they’re terrorists, barbarians and¬†“enemies of mankind”, after all) and send in their navies to provide free cover¬†for those poor Western shipping interests who seem incapable of fending off the¬†pirates, no one seems to care much about reining in Western fishermen or toxic¬†waste dumpers.¬†¬†¬†The St. Augustine quote I referred to in my¬†preceding post begins to seem even more apropos:¬† “what are kingdoms but¬†great bands of brigands?¬† Unfortunately, this¬†type of resource exploitation is¬†the rule rather than the exception when markets¬†meet¬†unowned or inadequately defended resources.¬† I have made a number¬†of blog posts on related issues:¬†¬†salmon,¬†tuna,¬†other fish and whales.

I quote from Hari’s column (emphasis added):

In 1991, the¬†government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed. Its nine million¬†people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and many of the ugliest¬†forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the¬†country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste.

As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started¬†appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The¬†coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes,¬†nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the¬†dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from¬†radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the¬†[Mauritanian diplomat who is] UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is¬†dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as¬†cadmium and mercury – you name it.” Much of it can be traced back to European¬†hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to¬†“dispose” of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European¬†governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: “Nothing. There has been¬†no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention.”

At the same time,¬†other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest¬†resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish-stocks by over-exploitation –¬†and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp,¬†lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally¬†sailing into Somalia’s unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost¬†their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the¬†town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: “If nothing is done, there¬†soon won’t be much fish left in our coastal waters.”

This is the¬†context in which the men we are calling “pirates” have emerged. Everyone agrees¬†they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to¬†dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a ‘tax’ on them. They call¬†themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and it’s not hard to see why.¬†In a surreal telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said¬†their motive was “to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters… We don’t¬†consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who¬†illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons¬†in our seas.” William Scott would understand those words.

No, this doesn’t¬†make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters –¬†especially those who have held up World Food Programme supplies. But the¬†“pirates” have the overwhelming support of the local population for a reason.¬†The independent Somalian news-site WardherNews conducted the best research we¬†have into what ordinary Somalis are thinking – and it found 70 percent “strongly¬†supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the country’s territorial¬†waters.” During the revolutionary war in America, George Washington and¬†America’s founding fathers paid pirates to protect America’s territorial waters,¬†because they had no navy or coastguard of their own. Most Americans supported¬†them. Is this so different?

Did we expect¬†starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear¬†waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris¬†and Rome? We didn’t act on those crimes – but when some of the fishermen¬†responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world’s oil¬†supply, we begin to shriek about “evil.” If we really want to deal with piracy,¬†we need to stop its root cause – our crimes – before we send in the gun-boats to¬†root out Somalia’s criminals.

A little digging finds ample credible support for Hari’s piece ( actually, I¬†noticed some in connection with my earlier posts, but declined to refer to it¬†then).

More background is here:

“It’s almost like a resource swap,” said Peter¬†Lehr, a Somalia piracy expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and¬†the editor of “Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism.” “Somalis¬†collect up to $100 million a year from pirate ransoms off their coasts. And the¬†Europeans and Asians poach around $300 million a year in fish from Somali¬†waters.”,0,6155016.story,+%22Plundered+Waters%22&source=bl&ots=bYYy-Zz2kU&sig=iLqa6DxqiotxfGNVzmfPnAmUtMo&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=2&ct=result#PPA109,M1,1518,594457,00.html


Tragedy of the ocean commons: stocks of giant Atlantic bluefin tuna look ready to crash, like the once rich cod fishery

November 28th, 2008 No comments

Despite an 80% drop in populations of east Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin tuna since  the mid-1970s, and continued massive overfishing above agreed quotas, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), under pressure from fishermen in the European Community,  on November 25 approved tightened 2009 fishing quotas that nevertheless exceed the recommendations of ICCAT’s own scientists by 50%.  Quotas were cut from 28,500 tonnes in 2008 to 22,000 tonnes, and the ICCAT also approved other measures designed to bring illegal fishing under control, but it is unclear whether these measures will be sufficient – particularly as illegal fishing in the past has been at multiples of quota levels.  ICCAT scientists had recommended that the quota be cut to 15,000 tonnes.

The EC praised the results, in the face of opposition by the US, Canada and Norway, which had supported the quota recommended by scientists.  Environmental groups of course were disappointed and called for tuna boycotts and suggested that all the member nations to the CITES convention (on trade in endangered species) should consider listing bluefin tuna as an endangered species – which would bring all commercial exploitation to a halt.

I looks like the pressure is on – both on the valuable bluefin tuna resource and on the relevant national governments, fishermen and consumers to better manage it.  The west Atlantic stocks of bluefin have apparently already collapsed, due to mismanagement by the US government.

As I noted on the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog:

Andy, this is an ongoing shame, the roots of which are not human greed but, as indicated by your reference to a “tragedy of the commons”, a lack of any ownership of the resource by those fishing it. The result is wasteful investment by fisherman in a race to catch fish before others do, no incentive for fishermen to invest in managing stocks sustainably, pressure by fisherman on governments for higher quotas, catches that exceed quotas, and government subsidies to keep unprofitable fishermen from losing their livelihoods. If we managed our agriculture the same way, we’d have a race to harvest, but nobody planting. More here:…

The answer clearly lies in finding ways to link the interests of the fishermen more closely to the resource that they rely on; while this is difficult in the case of international fisheries, there have been a number of success stories for fisheries that are managed by various countries. Transferable fishing quotas (and an ability to keep track of catches) have been the key:

Given all of the different governments involved it may be difficult to expect agreement tighter and more meaningfully enforced quotas, but a key possibility lies with Japan, which buys most of the bluefin tuna. As the chief purchaser (of course there are a variety of private purchasers involved), Japan is in a position to insist on purchasing only tuna caught by boats that properly record their catches and to unilaterally limit its own purchases to a sustainable level. Since the Japanese do not want to see the tuna fishery collapse, they have finally begun to support tightening quotas and finding other ways to improve management of the tuna stocks:

Consumer boycotts and pressure on Mediterranean governments to end subsidies to fishermen (a problem George Monbiot has noted [see the Mises link above]) are other leverage points.

Is a semi-privatization of the fishery, by allowing fishermen to transfer the quotas they receive (including purchase by interested consumer and environmental groups), possible?  Can Japanese consumers (and other sushi eaters) in particular bring pressure to bear?

More on the science of the bluefin tuna stocks here and here (the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics).

George Monbiot: Why do governments subsidize the rush by fishermen to destroy unowned ocean fisheries?

July 9th, 2008 No comments

In the context of the latest fuel strikes¬†by European fishermen, George Monbiot has an excellent piece¬†in the July 8th Guardian¬†that explores the role of governments in subsidizing the destructive “tragedy of the commons” that is ocean fisheries.

It is, however, a shame that Monbiot makes no reference to what many observers are starting to realize:  that the solution to solving over-fishing lies in getting the government out of the business of political management of the resources that fishermen depend on, and putting responsibility, control and incentives to invest in resource management back in the hands of fishermen. 

Although government interference in resource markets has been a resounding failure (witness the destruction of the US salmon fisheries), a light at the end of the tunnel has appeared in the form of privatization through “ITQs” or Individual Transferable Quotas, as noted by:

Ron Bailey, science correspondent of Reason, in “How to Save New England’s Fishing Villages; If only the fishers will allow it” (September 28, 2005) and in”Pick Your Poissons; Economic and ecological diversity for fisheries“(August 25, 2006); and by

Birgir Runolfsson, in Cato’s Regulation, in¬†“Fencing the Oceans A Rights-Based Approach to Privatizing Fisheries”¬†(vol. 20, no. 3, 1997).

Further, Jonathan Adler, law prof at Case Western Reserve University, has a very interesting discussion of how the enforcement of antitrust laws have frustrated cooperative fishery management  (March 2002).

While these materials focus on domestic marine fisheries, similar strategies are needed at regional levels.



T. Boone Pickens accelerates the tragedy of the Western water commons – by connecting thirsty markets to unowned, common-pool resources

June 16th, 2008 No comments

The latest Business Week magazine sports the headline, “Is Water the New Oil?” and a caricature of T. Boone Pickens.  The cover story -“There Will Be Water: T. Boone Pickens thinks water is the new oil—and he’s betting $100 million that he’s right” – describes Pickens’ plans to ship water to eager consumers in Dallas from his ranch and other water rights holdings in the Texas Panhandle region. 

While I’m all for water markets, there’s one small problem that deserves attention:  essentially Pickens will simply be sticking a huge straw into the unowned Ogallala Aquifer and pumping for all he’s worth.  Pickens will have to cover only his own costs (pumping and transportation), but he has no ownership stake in, or incentive to invest in maintaining or sustainably using, water resource itself.  As he draws down the water table, his neighbors will have to shell out more to dig and pump from deeper wells to maintain their own current draws, and if any of them wants to follow Pickens in shipping water to urban markets, then the race to drain the water commons in the Panhandle and other parts of the Ogallala will ratchet up further (it’s already been underway for many years in other parts of Texas and other states in which the Ogallala Aquifer lies).

Pickens may not be planning to replicate the history of the wasteful, competitive pumping of the East Texas common pool oil resources (also seen in the elimination of the passenger pigeon, the Plains bison, the great whales, and the crashing of ocean fisheries), but his own rational self interest is surely leading in that direction.  I hope Pickens can see where this is headed and take a positive role in heading off a destructive tragedy of the commons, which may be in the cards, but is not inevitable.   As Bruce Yandle has noted:

People can build institutions that take the edge off frantic commons behavior. People have unwritten and written constitutions that help to establish social order. People can and do accumulate wealth. People communicate, invent lines of kinship, and develop customs, traditions, and rules of law that limit anti-social behavior. People define, enforce, and trade property rights. People can and do avoid the tragedy of the commons. Indeed, instead of living with tragedies, people triumph over the commons. But the triumphs are never perfect or complete. There is always another commons to manage. …

At very low levels of income, what might be called stage one, human beings cannot afford to do much about property-rights enforcement and the commons. They live in a world where custom and tradition sustain them. As incomes rise and losses from the commons expand, stage two is entered. Fences go up, and rules are set for protecting the commons. Finally, in stage three, markets evolve along with rules of law that define spheres of private and public action. Private rights replace public control, and the triumph replaces the tragedy of the commons.

Life for mankind began on a commons where tragedies were commonplace and the incentive to improve was powerful. Out of the struggle to survive and accumulate wealth evolved markets, property rights, and the rule of law—a triumph on the commons. …

Human beings can and do avoid the tragedy of the commons. But doing so requires property rights and markets, which must be defended if the triumph is to continue.

Easy pickins?  Easy, Pickens.

h/t David Zetland

Yandle on the Tragedy of the Commons and Environmental Regulation

October 31st, 2007 No comments

The Library of Economics and Liberty has just posted a new hour+ podcast featuring Bruce Yandle.

 “Bruce Yandle of Clemson University and George Mason University’s Mercatus Center looks at the tragedy of the commons and the various ways that people have avoided the overuse of resources that are held in common. Examples discussed include fisheries, roads, rivers and the air. Yandle talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the historical use of norms, cooperative ventures such as incorporating a river, the common law, and top-down command-and-control regulation to reduce air and water pollution.”

Two other interesting podcasts/presentations by Yandle are here:

“Economics and the Environment: Public and Private Choice”,

“Getting Warmer: Addressing Climate Change and Environmental Policy”,

And further podcasts can be found here:,type.3/people_link.asp