By Daniel Flanigan

CIVE 401 Civil Engineering and Society

Fall 2006

December 13, 2006

In his 1968 Science essay entitled "The Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin challenged the morality of humankind's freedom to breed, suggesting society's only hope, and only solution, for handling the population problem.1 An extension on the topic originally published by William Forster Lloyd in 1833, Hardin boldly delivers a solution to the problem that for the scientific world was a new concept lacking a technical answer. Hardin reaches his conclusions based on the concept that a communal resource of universal ownership will inevitably fall to ruin as each rational owner decides to maximize utilization of the resource so that he/she collects the full reward of his/her action. With each individual acting under this rationale, the collective communes are undeniably limited to a finite resource.

Hardin's thesis is present in the article's subtitle The problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality. Humanity requires the basic extension of a new value insisting that we surrender the freedom to breed in order that we preserve the other freedoms. We live in a finite world that can only sustain a limited amount.

His moral implications and philosophical analysis allow for a well-rooted insight on sustainable development. As a civil engineer, sustainable development is an issue of great significance when assessing global issues challenging human societies such as global climate change, water resources supply, energy supply and use, and the hole in the ozone layer.

Hardin's argument and solution to the problem of The Tragedy of the Commons is therefore a pertinent discussion to the civil engineer. The approach taken by him, as shown in his writing, is one that boldly navigates all avenues with no overwhelming bias. Throughout my discussion, I will present the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons from Hardin's article. I will analyze his conclusions in relation to how his argument ties into the role of civil engineering through issues relating to morality and the concept of sustainable development. A conceptual inspiration generated by Hardin's moral assessment will be evident in potentially shaping the ethics of a civil engineer focused on meeting the developmental needs of society without compromising the needs of future generations.

The inspiration for Hardin's thesis derived from another article by Wienser and York in Science concerning the future of nuclear war. In their article, Wienser and York carefully proposed the dilemma of a nuclear age that has no apparent technical solution. This implicitly suggested that if a plausible solution were to exist, the explanation must lie in another realm of human behavior, a non-technical realm.

To quote Hardin: "It is fair to say that most people who anguish over the population problem are trying to find a way to avoid the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing any of the privileges they now enjoy." With human morals in light, Hardin was effective in proposing a solution to the population problem, a quandary complex enough to invoke nearly inconceivable sacrifices in a sense that forces a collective consideration for society. It seems natural to assume no strong inclination to address this problem; however, in considering a finite world with exponential growth and dependency on nonrenewable energy, scarcity will one day become conceivable. It is through ideals of sustainable development that we must address this issue. To avoid adverse effects of overpopulation without sacrificing any privileges is the same as risking everything on one endeavor.

Is it normal human behavior in attending a legal gambling facility to make just one bet? Do gamblers at the roulette table place all of their money on one color, one number? No, they typically bet conservatively, hoping to sustain their payroll until an opportunity comes along to make good on a bet. Hardin becomes an icon of sustainable development as he proposes his solution to the population problem with an underlying concept suggesting that society needs to sacrifice our freedoms of breeding to allow freedoms that are more important. His solution suggests meeting the needs of today (sacrifice) to conserve the needs of future generations.

The Tragedy of the Commons develops through Hardin's cattle herdsmen illustration in which the logic of the commons spawns tragedy. With these herdsmen keeping their open grazing pastures as full of cattle as possible, they are inexorably forced to answer a question concerning their benefit of adding an additional animal to the herd. The answers, broken into two components, to add or not to add, produce an unbalanced result favoring the addition of an animal. The positive outcome of adding another cow to the herd outweighs the negative overgrazing effect possible from the decision. An essential factor in this conscious decision is the acknowledgement of the imbalance. The rational being knows that the adverse effects of overgrazing will be shared among all.

"Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all" (Hardin).

A major common that Hardin relates is our environment, vastly threatened by pollution, a direct function of population growth. The moral in judgment again lies on the lap of individualistic thought. It is easy for one's waste to disappear into, let us say, a river. That is however, until the individual considers who will be affected by his actions: his neighbors downstream. There is no concern for pollution. An increase in the population density forced humankind to learn the consequences of this "overgrazing effect." It is concluded that the Tragedy of the Commons could be prevented most effectively through incentive. To avoid pollution, it must be easier and lower in cost to treat the pollutants, than to get rid of them untreated. Therefore, through government and law, humankind will be compelled to work in harmony.

As a child, I was taught that stealing was wrong but had to learn through experience the correct reasoning; that it was not only bad for my personal reputation but also for society. Parents will punish their child for taking what is not theirs, and the child will feel this punishment on an individual level. Often times it is not until this child looses a personal possession to theft that he can understand the moral which contributes collectively to the societal good. This demonstration seems to represent the impact of pollution in this day and age. It is this ripe concept which shames me as a participating member of the global society, but not necessarily in the sense of individual shame. It is natural to assume that as a product of Earth, we should be sustained by Mother Nature's cyclical response to societies' waste. It is more shameful in the collective sense where awareness of the problem of population growth does not induce adapting to the best solutions in order to prolong humankind.

Civil engineers share a responsibility in addressing the changing global issues human societies are faced with. The challenges lie in concentrating on the solutions and society's acclimation to regulation. Hardin's philosophy indicates a similarly challenging solution that often comes with great controversy. Energy supply and use is of great concern as we become more and more dependent on nonrenewable energy sources. Without alternative energy sources, solutions to this problem become controversial as they tend to promote a cutback or conservation of current usage. In a culture that prides itself in advancing technology, it becomes increasingly harder to cutback. An example of this would include the movie industry. Hollywood is competitively one of the more detrimental industries to the environment, between the energy consumption and the hazardous emissions that go into making movies. Through ideals similar to Hardin's, expressed in his article, one may suggest this freedom of entertainment in society could be sacrificed to free up energy for more noble causes. But this suggestion does not account for enough conserved energy to support the exponential growth in the human population and our increasing use of fossil fuels.

Hardin's suggestion to limit our breeding, while bold and invasive of personal freedoms, directly addresses the issue. Adding another cow to the limited space of pasture is what ultimately consumes the available resources quicker and with more negative impact on the entire herd. A civil engineer is expected to take leadership to bring about plausible solutions to today's global issues while maintaining a mindset of sustainable development. Hardin demonstrated moral implications and philosophical analysis in his approach to solving the population problem. It is this approach, under proper focus, that could guide a civil engineer to great accomplishments.

Humankind's detrimental effect on nature is pervasive. Our solutions will only be valid in the pursuit of the greater good of society, leaving no possibility unturned even if it is an assessment of our morality.

1 Hardin, G. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859, 1243-1248.

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