OneThing50: remembering the commons in the Easter season

Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.”

Noted ecolate

Noted dour realist Garrett Hardin

Earth Day recedes from our memory.  This past Tuesday, we looked through a kaleidoscopic four decades of Earth Days . . . and I thought of Garrett Hardin and his micro-famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he quotes A. N. Whitehead’s great line . . . that tragedy is not unhappiness but “resides in the remorseless working of things.”  Essentially this, the relentless pursuit of personal happiness within a growing population will result in competing interests; holding then to absolute freedom, as Hardin says, “will bring ruin to all.”

“In a competitive world of limited resources, total freedom of individual action is intolerable.”

STELLA diagram depicting two key STOCKS:  Population and Resources . . . and these are locked in a feedback loop

STELLA diagram depicting two key STOCKS: Population and Resources . . . and these are locked in a feedback loop, illustrating A.N. Whitehead’s “remorseless working of things.”

This much simplified STELLA model of a Resource impacted by a Population illustrates Hardin’s idea of the impact of population on all aspects of human society, including moral reasoning. For this lifelong Catholic, Hardin’s assertion about how one ascertains what is moral challenges my upbringing, but appeals deeply and implacably to reason. He says this: “The morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.” Ah, squishy relativism.

So, for a moment, let’s consider this as it emerges within the system illustrated at right.  Early on, a small and disparate population allows for considerable personal freedom, especially as it pertains to family size.  However, as the population increases, the increasing density pinches local resources (and, later, global resources as well);  pressures mount on livability such that, at some point when “the state of the system” pushes through carrying capacity, the death rate necessarily increases to stabilize the system.  In short, my moral freedom to control my family’s size threatens that very freedom . . . the “remorseless working of things” will endanger not only my children, my wife, and myself but my community as well.

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

When Hardin wrote this essay, the world held about 3,000,000,000 souls.  Now, it harbors over 7,000,000,000, en route to a mid-century peak of about 9,500,000,000.  In the ecolate view, one must ask, “And then what?”

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OneThing23: when you’ve heard one population explosion, you’ve heard them all

Spectacular eastern Oregon high plains - the Zumwalt Prairie

Sometimes, what happens in Oregon has already happened somewhere else.  We’re just slow on the uptake. What’s occurring in eastern Oregon should remind readers of another plateau experience.  Click on the pretty picture of the eastern Oregon herd for an endeering story.

The story is proof positive, as Thoreau put it,  that once you understand the principle of an event, all news like it is just gossip . . . this news item about Zumwalt Prairie ought to trigger thoughts about the Kaibab Plateau, a classic case of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Or the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Or knowing the right lever to press, but pressing in the wrong direction. Or . . .

Mostly, no one really understood how the Kaibab system operated as a natural organism – an undulating, multi-generational rhythm of vegetation, deer, and predators.  It’s the kind of exquisite relationships within a complex biota that takes centuries to find its balance. So, in the early 20th century, in an attempt to protect a dwindling herd, President Roosevelt and Congress created a preserve: protect deer, kill off predators. Dad gum, if it didn’t work. And work and work.  In about a decade or so, deer population soared from approximately 4,000 to 100,000. And then quickly, bitterly and pathetically, died off . . . seeking the natural set point for the region’s carrying capacity, about 30,000.

Basic Vensim model for the Kaibab Plateau

For systems modelers, the Kaibab Plateau problem is a prime problem for students to test their modeling mettle.  Once students have a rudimentary model, some truly wonderful learning can take place:  one can actually test out various policies on the habitat to see which is most effective.  What happens if one reduces/increase deer tags?  What happens if one allows predators to increase?  What happens if we want to protect the deer and kill off the predators? How long does it take for one policy to move through a complicated system?

For the last 20 years, various high school and college instructors have been creating computer models for students to think through the counter-intuitive qualities of the dynamic equilibrium of the Kaibab.  Here is the tale of carrying capacity, human intervention, and cuddly deer.

It’s a very rich model. Things move in the direction opposite from our passions and inclinations. And every high school student should know something about it.

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QuickThing2>Let’s hear it for beer!

Many western waterways go bone dry, creating high tension for water rights and jeopardizing our pursuit of the perfect pint.

Ben Franklin, noted scientist and reputed lush, once soberly spake: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” And it just may be that beer holds the secret to our sustainable future.

The annual dry river and creek beds of the West demonstrate Garret Hardin’s classic tale of how the tragedy of the commons meets our deep love of fresh water and a quality pint of ale.  This Montana story of water rights, litigated for decades from a perspective of economic priorities, brings locals to the brink of a broken system.  Thank God . . . it’s beer to the rescue!  Using an ingenious systems approach, locals were able to create a thoughtful market solution that returned water to the streams. And kept local ales on the shelf and in the pub.

A restored Prickly Pear Creek

It helps if you drink a pint as you watch!

Rob Harmon: How the market can keep streams flowing | Video on TED.com.