Sunday, February 13, 2005

Lorax Hall of Shame #1

I now begin a Lorax Hall of Shame series. The Lorax is hero of a classic Dr. Seuss book. He is a benevolent spirit who "speaks for the trees."

The Lorax gets railroaded by the greedy Once-ler who, with his roughshod Cosa Nostra, cuts down truffula trees to knit "Thneeds" (see pink object at right). "You need a Thneed" is the factory slogan. When all the trees are gone and the land is ruined, the Once-ler and his gang disappear, leaving their dead factory, grey air, brown water, gasping Humming-Fish and choking Swomee-Swans behind.

Chuck Olsen parsed "The Lorax" for the California Libertarian Party in 1993.
Aristotle, in his Politics, said: "that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest."

This, by itself, does not bode well for the treatment that commonly owned resources will receive. But there is another more serious problem, which is called: the "Tragedy of the Commons." Let me paraphrase Dr. Garrett Hardin's classic paper of 1968 (Ref. 2), which uses the example of commonly-owned grazing land:

Picture a pasture open to all. Each herdsman will seek to maximize his gain. He asks: "What are the costs and benefits of adding one more animal to my herd?" The profit from the additional animal goes exclusively to the particular herdsman, while a major cost -the additional overgrazing which that animal causes -- is shared by all the herdsman.

The commonly-owned grazing land is inevitably destroyed by overgrazing. It is not rational to destroy a resource, and yet, due to the tragedy of the commons, the rational herdsmen together destroy their land. To quote Dr. Hardin again:

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.
Jared Diamond has, in essence, handed out a few Lorax awards in his recent book Collapse. By the way, at Guns, Germed and Steeled you can find an excerpt from Diamond's New York Times article on New Year's Day.

An obvious choice for the Lorax Hall of Shame is the multi-national fishing industry which devastated the Georges Bank fishery, virtually exterminating a cod population which had seemed limitless just a few years earlier. See Greed is Killing the Oceans from Earth Portals. I saw an interview with one of the last cod-fisherman on Georges Bank before the fishery was closed. He said he know there weren't many cod left, but this was his livelihood, and if somebody was going to catch the last fish, it was going to be him.

You may have heard the feature recently on NPR about Newfoundland trying, now, to re-tool its economy in the absence of fish. They're trying to bring in tourist dollars by building nice replicas of their old fishing villages. The tourists like them quite a bit.

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At 2:00 AM, Blogger Sigmund, Carl and Alfred said...

See this, especially items 2 and 1 (it's a countdown). Fascinating stuff- and thought provoking.

I'm not sure if it's a la MC Ecsher or classical realis.

At 2:15 AM, Blogger Michele said...

As the granddaughter of a man from Newfoundland I grew up knowing much about the collapse of the Newfoundland "way of life" and Canada's cod crisis.

However, there is hope that through diversification Newfoundland fishery can and is being rebuilt, and the industry itself is being restructured. Although the cod have not returned the are some fisheries
that are lucrative which also offers individual fishermen the possibilty of economic growth as fishermen.

If the Newfoundland fishing industry is managed intelligently with sustainability as its priority, then the association between Newfoundland and the fishery MIGHT be able to continue in the future.

This will allow those from "the rock" to regain a fishing "culture" and "cute tourist attractions," can still be of interest to the mainlanders.

Or in other words: yes, it is a shame.

At 7:33 AM, Blogger Sharon said...

Hardin's study might be a "classic", but as a generalisation (over-grazing is "inevitable"), it's just wrong: plenty of recent research on common lands in early modern Britain shows that the use of commons was regulated through a) local policing (in many places there were strict restrictions on the numbers of animals commoners could graze there) and b) social and communal norms that didn't necessarily put 'the individual' or profit-making first.

At 7:44 AM, Blogger melinama said...

Hi boys, interesting article you sent. I feel I should do a book report on it and send it to you.

Michele, I hope things get managed better the second time round and that Newfoundland can indeed rebuild some of what has been lost.

Sharon, I think I should read Hardin's study myself. The title is so compelling peope link and re-link to it and perhaps bends it to their own purposes. Olsen, the libertarian summarizing Hardin here, is opposed to government ownership of wild spaces and wants them privatized, so that's the dog he has in the fight. I am a political dunce, paralyzed by the Law of Unintended Consequences, so I tread carefully around these issues.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Ms. Piggy said...

Michele sent me :)
Just saying hi!

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Sharon said...

I just found the text online here. I'd forgotten how short it is, and just how ahistorical. It's completely theoretical; there's no historical evidence at all - let alone any consideration of different attitudes to such things in the past. For anyone interested, the most detailed study of this in 18th-century England (that I can think of right now) is JM Neeson, _Commoners_ (I forget the full title).


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