Tragedy of our Commons


That’s the year when slavery was finally, formally abolished in the British Empire. When, for the first time, a ship made a trans-Atlantic crossing under steam power alone. When doctors didn’t bother to wash their hands before operating; as upper-class people, they felt affronted by the suggestion they might be ‘unclean’. When blood-letting was the most common way of treating just about any medical complaint.

And when, some forty years before the germ theory was widely accepted, most diseases were explained by the ‘miasma theory.’ This held that bad air, coming from rotting vegetation, was the cause of all diseases. Malaria, in fact was named for this cause: mal=bad, aria=air.

And in 1833, the Tragedy of the Commons was first recognised and written about. This refers to the cases of environmental degradation caused by individual over-use (for personal gain) of a common resource.

An English economist William Forster Lloyd published a pamphlet which postulated a hypothetical example of over-use of a common resource. The most ready example that British people would recognise was the ‘village common’, a parcel of public land that everybody could use for grazing their animals. Lloyd reckoned that, if every person added more of their own cows – an individually rational economic decision – the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.

The term ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ was applied to Lloyd’s finding more than a century later, in a 1968 paper in the journal Science by ecologist Garrett Hardin.

We on Waiheke sit in the middle of an evolving, already severe, Tragedy of the Commons. The biodiversity of the Hauraki Gulf has been seriously depleted by over-fishing. Cornerstone species are disappearing, or have already gone. The Hauraki Gulf is a Marine Park, but it’s a Serengeti without wildebeest and lions, the Okavango without elephants and lechwe, Yellowstone without bison and bears.

The Tragedy of the Commons has been criticised as a ‘human-centric’ view. It’s looking at a system from the perspective of human exploitation – not necessarily the sustainability of ecosystem response, which, in the end supports us humans too.

Ecosystem services do not come into the ‘Tragedy view’. For example, how beds of mussels filter and clean the water; or how crayfish and snapper control kina, which in turn can destroy kelp beds, which are an important habitat. Everything is connected.

The real Tragedy of the Commons is that we seem to not see that. Here’s what the scientists say about our commons: “Kōura (crayfish) are now regarded as functionally extinct in heavily fished areas…snapper are down 83 per cent on their natural abundance…tarakihi (whose sprat feed red-legged gulls) are overfished and depleted, and are below 20 per cent of their natural abundance… …there has been a universal decline in the density of harvestable tuangi (cockles)…the status of scallop beds is not known…shorebirds and seabirds have declined by 67 per cent since human arrival......sharks are down 86 percent of their natural abundance…sealions are locally extinct…whales and dolphins are down 97 per cent of their natural abundance…mussels down 100 per cent… By the late 1960’s commercial dredging destroyed more than 500 square km of mussel beds. Most remaining mussels are only found in the intertidal zone”

And, “Many recreational fishers say their take is inconsequential compared with the commercial harvest, but this is a myth. Both take roughly equal numbers of Snapper from the Hauraki Gulf.” The actual figures, averaged for the seasons 2016-2019 are: recreational take 2,000 tonnes annually, commercial take 1,500 tonnes. “The recreational catches of tāmure, kahawai and kingfish exceed the commercial catches.”*

The loss of something valuable leaves a psychic hole for us, and a real hole in the balance of the environment. Perhaps this is because it’s hard to define exactly what the loss is – just like that ugly, hollow feeling after a burglary, when you must start looking to find out exactly what’s been taken.

The same with our Commons. The majesty of hapuka cruising the reefs – gone. The boil-ups of fish – gone. Did you see one this past summer? I didn’t. There’s much talk that the new world we will enter after the Covid-19 crisis may be a kinder, gentler place. On the environment too. And more enlightened all round.

Would we consider a return to 1833 modes of operation? Slavery acceptable again? Coal-burning steamships the only overseas tourism option? Doctors not washing their hands? The compost heap caused Covid-19?

We like to think we’re a modern, reasonable, well-informed nation. But in matters of environmental management, we’re behind the pace. New Zealand has performed well in the Covid-19 crisis by adopting an approach where we listened to scientists and acted on their advice. It’s time we did the same with the Commons we all live in.

*From The State of Our Gulf 2020, published February 2020.