Thursday, October 4, 2012

Stephan Langdon

Mr. Bubble: that's my first thought  when I hear tragedy of the commons.

I live in Bogota -- known as the city 2600 meters closer to the stars. A beautiful place. Its endowed with towering eucalyptus, cerulean skies,  ample rain, and Saltos Tequendama -- Tequendama Falls.  Traditionally, it was the location where jilted lovers launched themselves to their deaths. In the early part of the 20th century, Tequendama Falls became the Niagra Falls of Colombia -- the in place for newlyweds to consummate their first night of marriage. These days, its know for the amonia smell, the toxic vapor that takes the paint of hotels that once greeted newlyweds, and a this flow of bubbles that float on top of the river.

Upstream from the falls, tanners dump the waste of their trade -- lime, chromium sulphat, Sulphuric acid and so on -- into the stream creating a stew of pollution that produces a towering mountain of bubbles -- not too much smaller than those towering mountains of Mr. Bubble I bathed in as a child.

The analogy of Bogota is not an exact analogy of the tragedy of the commons ( but it might keep these SWEET scholars reading ). However, it does illustrate a unique point: why, when faced with public ownership of a resource , why do users let it go to waste ? Why do users abuse a collective resource value the common benefit? And would private ownership improve the condition of a collective resource -- in this case the Bogota River

As our  Sweet scholar rephrase the argument about the tragedy of the commons, the concept goes that if collective grazing of the pasture is allowed, the pasture is likely to become overgrazed, overused, and eventually worthless. Another take might be, as the pasture is collectively owned, members of the community might not take care of it because, "Well, it’s the responsibility of that guy over there . . . He uses it too, damn it."

However, in a world of private property, if ranchers own the land individually, each rancher will be more likely to take care of the pasture because they have a personal responsibility and a personal stake in its upkeep. Added to this come positive externalities: pride of ownership, individual value creation, and personal identity. Face it, if a rancher owns a spread, the condition of the ranch becomes a reflection of the type of person the rancher is. Thus, for a number of reasons, the pasture is kept up, or even improved. 

I can buy this argument. For me, this  outline of the tragedy of the commons has intuitive merit.

My concern arises when the common is not parceled out among individuals, rather, when the commons are split up by corporations and collectives -- groups that at times can lack a stake or even an identity within the collective they own. For better or worse, we live in a world in which our life is been hacked out bout by collective concerns: IBM, Exxon, General Electric, Facebook, the Catholic Church, and so many other collectives. These are the great owners of land, environment, and even the digital commons. An individual might care for a parcel of land because it is part of his personal wealth and identity. Can we say the same for a corporation?

My concern is echoed in Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar's movie "The Corportation." While I must admit that the strident tone of the movie can at times be annoying, Abbott and Achbar make several noteworthy points. One is about wealth. Who creates wealth? Oftentimes, as they point out, wealth is only created when it is owned privately. Speaking in the movie, Elaine Bernard asks "What would you call clean water, fresh air, a safe environment? Are they not a form of wealth? And why does it only become wealth when some entity puts a fence around it and calls it private property. That's not wealth creation, that's wealth usurpation."

This argument didn't really ring true, until I moved to South America.

I grew up in Oregon, and I am waking up to the fact that I've spent the majority of my adulthood outside the United States, and 13 of the last 16 years in South America. Thus, I'm starting to take on many South American sensibilities, and for the purpose of this argument, I will put on my South American hat.

Among the historical tragedies known by South Americans is Potosi. For you this might be new, but for people in this part of the world is a renowned, but infamous chapter in history.

Potosi, Boliva sits in the shadows of Cerro Rico, a 16000 foot mountain packed with silver and tin, lead and zinc. For the Spanish, it was conquered and possessed becoming a private mine for the crown. But, rather than creating a sense of ownership or stake, the private ownership of Cerro Rico did nothing to increase the wealth or state of the mountain and the surrounding area -- rather it was exploited. Quechua Indians were employed in the mines, not to improve the mines, rather to harvest the metals for Spaniards overseas. The owners abroad, rather than linking their identities and reputations to the land, exploited the resource wealth. If you ever get a chance to visit Madrid, you will see the jaw dropping opulence that Potosi silver created. But, in Bolivia, the Spaniards left a toxic, Swiss cheese of a mountain that continues to leach toxins to this day.

In their book Dependency and Development in Latin America, Fernando Henrique Cardoso  and Enzo Faletto descibe this type of a relationship. They say the relations  between overseas owners exploiting lands for their mineral wealth and the local community creates a resource curse. The pursuit of profit by the owners does not create broad based wealth, but creates an economy focused on a single purpose -- exploitation of the resource. The resource are exploited, infrastructure and politics systems are geared towards meeting the demands of harvesting the particular resource, which in the case of Potosi would be exploiting silver, tin and other metals. However, once all the materials are extracted and profit is taken, the owners--who have no personal stake in the exploited land--abandon it, leaving not wealth, but waste.  In the process, the intrinsic wealth of the commons -- fresh air, clean water, babies born free from birth defects -- is lost.

But, to conclude these random thoughts about the tragedy of the commons. I agree that when a community shares something of value or wealth, members of the community can be as neglectful with the as the Colombian tanners are with the Bogota river. Private ownership, private responsibility might be a better means to create greater wealth. However, the same is not true when corporations, organizations or governments get involved. Absentee owners and impersonal collectives often focus their efforts to usurp the wealth of private property --  many times with little interest for the long-term value that their actions erase.

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