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Rio+20, #sustainability & the commons: tragedy of the commons at 3 levels (#systemsthinking #stwg)

I think you will spend 300 seconds reading this post

As my readers may know, I’m a member of the Systems Thinking World LinkedIn discussion group and there’s a running thread regarding that United Nations call from Secretary General Ban Ki Moon about some revolutionary thinking to get the global economy out of the marsh it is now.

Thanks to that (long) thread, I’ve been acquainted with various initiatives, one of them being that of The School of Commoning. One of their home page blog article is about a Tragedy of the Commons identified following the Rio+20 UN world conference recently.

Indeed, I identified not one, not two, but three Tragedy of the Commons happening regarding these sustainability issues, though not all at the same level, but probably reinforcing the whole problem at a bigger level (haven’t modelled that from a higher level, though, someone ought to do it. Volunteers, somewhere?). They are:

  1. Fight for usage of non renewable resources (or commons)
  2. Fight for monetization of non renewable resources (or commons)
  3. Fight for control over the non renewable resources (or commons)

Let’s review them each in turn…

Fight for usage of non renewable resources

This Tragedy of the Commons concerns every one of us on the planet, although some people are mature enough to reject usage of some of them (oil and its derivatives for instance).

These resources are featured as 1) being non renewable and 2) being low enough to mandate a rapid and drastic change of our collective behavior in order not for humanity to run into a (very hard) wall.

The more we hear about that pressing issue, the more we are willing to get our share of them before it all disappear. Who hasn’t rushed to fill his car’s tank after hearing that gas price were going to raise?

Hopefully, we can’t directly get access to these non renewable resources on our own: we need to purchase the services of private or government companies. Would it be for people only, chances are that we’d have run out of oil already…

Fight for monetization of non renewable resources

The other level concerns private companies (and sometimes government companies as well) that start to compete to have access to some non renewable commons. Oil fields come to mind, but so do fishing areas as well (hopefully, the fishers each have an individual quota preventing them here again from taking it all definitely). For that fishery aspect, I urge you to experiment with that Harvest Game intended to teach Systems Thinking, from Linda Booth Sweeney (check her website and her excellent books with games to teach Systems Thinking).

It should also be noted that these companies fight for access to these resources because they have customers (us obviously) ready to buy!

I guess this is where the School of Commoning is trying to intervene to put some control in place to avoid that situation (tragedy of the commons systems dynamics archetype) to arrive to its logical conclusion: total and definitive depletion of that resource.

I take the opportunity to make a note to the reader that we can identify 3 kinds of commons:

  • unlimited commons (sun, wind, tide)
  • limited but renewable resources on a short-term (oceans, air, fertile land). If you get past a tipping point, the resource cannot renew itself and disappear forever (or gets renewed after humanity died, which is the same for my purpose),
  • limited and non renewable resources (oil).

Fight for control over the non renewable resources

The last kind of tragedy of the commons I see unfolding today is between private companies trying to exploit non renewable resources, and ecologists trying to preserve them. The formers want to exploit them, the latters to preserve them and thus avoid exploitation of the resource by the formers. The more one gets control over some resources, the more the other is willing to control the rest, to at least, save that.

It is in line with the systems thinking saying that “nothing grows forever”. Indeed, the greed of private companies (itself fed by the greed of humanity) is raising the very concern of ecologists to protect commons, and that raising concern itself further raises the greed of private companies.

Conclusion

What conclusion can we have regarding that? Well, I don’t know for now (if you have, please state it in comments below!)

We have two tragedies of the commons competing for accessing the commons and risking depleting them totally (fight for usage and fight for monetization). The third tragedy is about (from an ecologist point of view) gaining control in order to preserve or regulate access, thus is a trend against preventing the two previous tragedies from coming to their (tragical) end.

So it’s a good thing, but also a bad thing since it will trigger all sort of unethical behavior from private companies to exploit as much as they could before that which they exploit gets under control of governments or ecologists. Though, putting that control into place (what the School of Commoning is trying to do by educating people as far as I understand their purpose) is precisely what’s supposed to be done to regulate a “tragedy of the commons” situation.

If only that would have been done earlier, before the issue got too pressing as of today, we could have learned to live under restricted access to these commons… (of course, before now, nobody’s was listening anyway so nothing could (or have?) been done anyway). Some indigenous people understood that and regulated themselves by limiting fishing, hunting, etc.). It may be because the feedback loops were short enough for them to notice the risk. Or that because their lack of technology made them close enough to Nature to be able to listen and understand it.

It seems to me that our usage of technology, built out of non reneable resources, precisely got in the way of us listening to what Mother Nature could have told us regarding preserving it. Vicious circle, again…

*sigh*

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