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Tragedy of the Commons

Tuesday, November 01, 2011
I first heard the phrase "Tragedy of the Commons" in an XKCD comic a few weeks ago. It sounded familiar, but I couldn't explain what it mean. Wikipedia came to my rescue, however, and was able to put in official words what I'd understood but not had a name for: the "dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen."

I became fascinated by this, spending hours comparing this theory to the world around me.

Fast forward to this morning, when I was listening to NPR during my morning commute. There was a piece called As Population, Consumption Rise, Builder Goes Small. At the very end of the segment, I heard this:
Since buildings consume about 40 percent of the nation's energy, they're a logical target for more efficiency. But Berkeley's Kammen says living smaller isn't the ultimate solution. With 9 billion or 10 billion people, rising consumption will overwhelm any efficiency, as well as our current sources of energy. What's needed, he says, is renewable energy that's cheap and won't run out.

"And by essentially every measure," he concludes, "we are not moving fast enough."
And it struck me: the was the tragedy of the commons on a global scale. This is where the population is headed. With our global population at (or near) 7 billion, we're seeing the effects of the strain humanity has put on the Earth's ability to provide us with its natural resources: peak oil, overfishing (another example of the tragedy of the commons), and deforestation, to name a few.

The problem with human overpopulation is that there is little chance of stopping it. The more industrialized first-world nations might be coaxed into curbing populations, but there's little chance of slowing the birth rate down in the poorer countries any time soon.

Nations will be looking at a land grab of the earth's natural resources as demand exceeds supply. The countries that have the most power in the future will be a) the ones with the most varied resources, b) the ones most efficiently able to use the resources they have, or c) the ones able to find new resources and ways to use them. Let's just hope we figure out how to be more efficient before this shared resource we live on is depleted.


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