Tuesday, May 30, 2006

La Mesa Dam -- and the Tragedy of the Commons

here are five articles in Sunday PDI's Talk of the Town section on the La Mesa Dam controversy, whose basic facts are laid out here by MLQ3 in The Desire for Land and Water. and in La Mesa Dam Quick Facts (no byline). Local Blawger Noel Punzalan contributes the meaty piece, Legal Issues in the La Mesa Dam controversy. Looks like bloggerdom was all over this one, at least from the legal standpoint, as La Vida Lawyer Marvin Aceron also weighs in with When Tribes Clash -- in which he considers the alternatives of the opposed sides and the national government.

Taken from the perspective of Game Theory, this clash of "tribal" interests over environement resources such La Mesa Dam, has surprising connections with many other quite general problems, such as the population explosion and nuclear proliferation. They come together in a classic problem that has been widely studied, called The Tragedy of the Commons. (This link is to Garret Hardin's well-known 1968 essay on the topic.) A relevant quote from this essay are in order:
Garret Hardin: "In a reverse way, the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in -- sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air; and distracting and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. The calculations of utility are much the same as before. The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of "fouling our own nest," so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers...The pollution problem is a consequence of population. It did not much matter how a lonely American frontiersman disposed of his waste. "Flowing water purifies itself every ten miles," my grandfather used to say, and the myth was near enough to the truth when he was a boy, for there were not too many people. But as population became denser, the natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded, calling for a redefinition of property rights."
The resolution of the issue as it stands will indeed be found by the Supreme Court, but I would be interested to see how my two blawger friends and MLQ3 might react to this same situation if the people involved were not "ex-MWSS employees" but let us say, indigenous peoples living in La Mesa Dam for generations. Would they have a different attitude or analysis of the situation?

BUT I was nonplussed by the last of the articles in Talk of the Town, Watersheds and Survival by Valerio Mendoza which opens with this sentence--
The human body and the Earth both comprise 75 percent water.
I know we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but if any book seriously had this title I would have to think it was being misleading because the Earth is most definitely not 75% water. Rather it has a thin wispy covering of surface water and ice, at most a couple of miles thick, but is solid rock or molten iron for most of its 7,900-mile plus diameter. (via GeoScience) The human body is mostly water though, so we shall accept the point being made that water is important, even essential to human life on the planet, though it certainly does not inspire confidence to read such a brazen falsehood in the lead. The rest of Mendoza's essay is really a Paean to Forests ("...prevent soil erosion, hasten infiltration, fix carbon dioxide and many other greenhouse gases (GHG)...modify local temperature...act as the lungs of the metropolis, the reservoir of a genetic pool for our biodiversity. Forests are excellent sites for recreation and education...") But please see Michael Crichton's Environmentalism as Religion for a perspective.

SPEAKING OF POPULATION (via SCIENCEBLOG) 'Rhythm Method' May Kill Off More Embryos than Other Methods of Contraception Here is a new study from the Journal of Medical Ethics that suggests the only method of "natural birth control" allowed by the Roman Catholic Church may actually be more deadly to human embryos than artificial means of contraception! This could really shake things up since it has always been assumed by everybody that this "natural method" doesn't actually "kill." But look at how statistics indicates a chilling other possibility...

The money quote from Tragedy of the Commons, and the conclusion really to the only effective means of dealing with such problems is this: "Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon." -- otherwise "tragedy" as Whitehead defines it inexorably occurs: "The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things."

In this regard, Garret Hardin's conclusion is worth quoting in full:
Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man's population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.

First we abandoned the commons in food gathering, enclosing farm land and restricting pastures and hunting and fishing areas. These restrictions are still not complete throughout the world.

Somewhat later we saw that the commons as a place for waste disposal would also have to be abandoned. Restrictions on the disposal of domestic sewage are widely accepted in the Western world; we are still struggling to close the commons to pollution by automobiles, factories, insecticide sprayers, fertilizing operations, and atomic energy installations.

In a still more embryonic state is our recognition of the evils of the commons in matters of pleasure. There is almost no restriction on the propagation of sound waves in the public medium. The shopping public is assaulted with mindless music, without its consent. Our government has paid out billions of dollars to create a supersonic transport which would disturb 50,000 people for every one person whisked from coast to coast 3 hours faster. Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and television and pollute the view of travelers. We are a long way from outlawing the commons in matters of pleasure. Is this because our Puritan inheritance makes us view pleasure as something of a sin, and pain (that is, the pollution of advertising) as the sign of virtue?

Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody's personal liberty. Infringements made in the distant past are accepted because no contemporary complains of a loss. It is the newly proposed infringements that we vigorously oppose; cries of "rights" and "freedom" fill the air. But what does "freedom" mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, "Freedom is the recognition of necessity."

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short.

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. "Freedom is the recognition of necessity" -- and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

Resty Odon, in comments to an earlier post, calls this position "fascistic." Opinions, anyone?

7 comments:

marvin said...

Oh most definitely, DJB, the 1987 Constitution has an entire provision on ancestral domains that guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral lands. So the recognition of the rights to ancestral domains puts another issue on the table.

But as I wrote in the article, the exercise of the power of expropriation will settle all scores. Property rights, whether under the Civil Code or under customary laws of indigenous tribes, are inferior to the State's power of expropriation.

R. O. said...

Hi, Dean, I have an additional comment. I realize Hardin wrote this article at a time when the concept of sustainability has not yet entered mainstream lexicon. At any rate, his position would still be helpful as regards resources that are non-renewable.

Rizalist said...

Thanks for that Marv.

R.O., The scariest thing about Hardin's analysis is that "there is no technical solution" to the problem of unbridled freedom to breed (which is a right enshrined in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights as being located in the human family!).

Such a conclusion addresses
"sustainability" in an essential way by denying that there is any "sustainable" regime in which people are free to multiply as they wish without "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon." -- even if many are willing to do so!

I'm not completely sold on his idea, but there seems to be widespread concensus that they do have merit.

But in other areas I can think of many applications of Tragedy of the Commons: traffic, squatting, public education, and many others, including environmental issues.

AmericanPainter said...

Man’s “freedom to breed” is generally held to be an inalienable right except in China where child bearing is limited to one child per family. Is that the wave of the future?

If so, I’m glad that I’m an old man!

HILLBLOGGER said...

Dean,

When 'sustainability' becomes the overriding concern of governments, the breeding population will deal with the problem themselves - economics will move men to commit the unthinkable: war of attrition.

Fact of life. History of wars shows us that when sustainability is no longer possible, the only alternative is to downsize.

Rizalist said...

Hillblogger,
Which comes first, I wonder? Prosperity or a smaller average family size, which are reportedly cross correlated somehow. It's kind of a chicken or the egg sort of thing.

Rizalist said...

American Painter, Long time no see. Nice of you to drop by. Yeah, China. I remember a little poem, but only vaguely...

Blue porcelain water jug--
Pink little baby girl--
Either end can go in first.