The Salient Problems of Sustainability

Introduction to the Tragedy of the Commons

One of the classic problems of sustainability is called the Tragedy of the Commons, where individuals acting independently and rationally deplete a common resource, despite their understanding that it is not in the group’s long term best interest to do so.  This problem describes the overexploitation of ‘common pool resources’ such as fisheries, national parks, and global warming.  One place where this is happening now is Lake Victoria — the second largest freshwater lake in the world.  Abutted by Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, Lake Victoria was once supplied fisherman with an abundance of fish to catch, sell, and eat – but now is threatened by overfishing.

For example, the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO) estimates that stocks of Nile Perch have decreased over the past decade from 1.9 million tons to only 600,000 tons in 2009, causing severe negative ramifications in the local economy (see video above).  Ironically, the Nile perch are an invasive species originally introduced to Lake Victoria by Europeans and are now fished primarily for export back to Europe, even while locals suffer from periodic famine.

The classic example of the Tragedy of the Commons described in Garrett Hardin’s seminal 1968 paper was overgrazing, as described in this video:

Hardin himself explained the problem in terms of overpopulation.  In his view, disease and war limited populations in pre-industrial times, but as life expectancy increases, the resources available for each person dwindle.  in this video, he introduces two potential solutions: 1) socialism, or 2) privatization.  Nevertheless, he views population as fundamentally at odds with “standard of living”, suggesting that either one or the other must decline.

Elinor Ostrom gives the example of a fishery in her explanation of common pool resources and she argues that socialization (“centralization”) and privatization are not the only solutions.  She points to examples in which communities have successfully managed common pool resources by devising “local rules” about access and consumption that are more diverse and complex than the simplistic view advocated by Hardin.  She describes some of these in her 1999 response to Hardin called ‘Revisiting the Commons.’

The tension in a common pool resource problem is between what is rational for the individual and what is rational for society as a whole.  Although each individual, seeking to maximize their own profit, has an incentive to consume more, eventually over consumption will exhaust the resource for everyone.

Unlike some classic game-theoretic problem simulations like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, The Pisces Game encourages communication between players.  However, to simulate the communications technologies that currently dominate business in developing countries like Uganda, PiscesTheGame is played on cell phones, using SMS messaging (i.e., Twitter).  By tweeting short messages, players are expected to obtain critically important information, bargain and trade, enter commands, and otherwise coordinate actions to avoid collapse of the supporting ‘ecosystem’.

The Pisces Game has been played in dozens of classrooms throughout the world, including Mountains of the Moon University in Uganda, the Management Development Institute in India, the 2013 North American meeting of the Society of Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) and several Universities in the United States, including Arizona State, Rochester Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Michigan State, and University of Colorado at Boulder.  In class, students are expected to confront the salient moral questions that arise during game-play, including: “What are my obligations to others?  What am I willing to risk in my own sense of well-being to meet these obligations?”

Participants are expected to obtain a greater understanding of the human dimensions of sustainability problems, such as diverse values and worldviews, social media skills related to leadership, teamwork, negotiation, and empathy, and (if the classroom experience is any indication) may discover relevant insights into their own or others’ moral character.

PiscesTheGame positions players between two irreconcilable ethical tensions critical to sustainability, listed in separate sections below.

1. Strong vs. Weak Sustainability (Ecology or Technology?)

If sustainability relies on common pool (rather than private) resources, then the interests of society will be best served if individuals curtail their consumption to a level described as the maximum sustainable yield (MSY), at which the reproduction of the resource is greatest (Figures 1), and natural capital is preserved for future generations.  This view, that preserving natural capital is critical for human existence, is known as strong sustainabilitiy.

lake fish population
Figure 1. Maximum Sustainable Yield

However, some scientists believe that the tragedy of common pool resources can be circumvented by substituting technological capital for ecosystem services.  This view, which is called weak sustainability, claims that advances in technology will benefit future generations through discovery of new resources and improved efficiency, even if natural resources are depleted or even exhausted.  One proponent of this view is Robert Solow, who argues in this 1993 paper that our debt to future generations should be paid in knowledge, if not natural resources.

Whereas Solow would admit unlimited substitution of technological capital for natural capital, Robert U Ayres offers a rebuttal in his 2007 paper On the Practical Limits to Substitution, in which he lists several resources for which there are no existing technological substitutes, nor (in his view) are there ever likely to be.  These include: agriculture, climate regulation, oxygen, and basic minerals.

One modern test of the weak vs. strong sustainability argument is the Pacific Island nation of Nauru, which almost 40 years ago was the wealthiest country in the world as a result of selling their rich phosphate rock deposits.  However, a currency and banking crisis cost the nation virtually all of their savings and with the phosphate rock gone, the island nation now ekes out a meager living running Australian detention centers.

2. Inter- vs. Intra- generational Equity (Eat Now? Or Let Others Eat Later?) 

Although sustainability typically demands consideration of long-term consequences, we cannot avoid the fact that resources invested for the benefit of future generations risk impoverishing the present.  Should these resources be consumed now, to either maintain a subsistence existence for the present population even if that means that future generations do not have the resources they need to sustain themselves?

Although the problem of intra- generational equity might be resolved through negotiation and communication between present peoples, such communication with the future is impossible.  One argument suggests that, because future generations will presumably be wealthier and technologically more advanced, it behooves us to meet the needs of the present first — effectively letting the future people take care of themselves.  A counter argument suggests, because knowledge of future preferences is impossible, we owe our unborn great grandchildren the maximum breadth of options.

PiscesTheGame asks players to confront the question of inter- and intra-generational equity by passing the game between different institutions.  That is, players at any one time will inherit the legacy left to them by previous players, and be asked to consider the needs of the future player to whom they will bequeath the game conditions.


One thought on “The Salient Problems of Sustainability

  1. At what point do we ask the villagers to take responsibility for what they have done?
    How about selling there land to a foreign power regime, like some African countries have done by allowing other countries to come in and remove minerals and other resources. In addition education for the children and adults when possible seems to be one of the best alternatives.

    Although islands are a tough challenge as they have traditionally since the beginning of time not been easy to protect, finite amount of resources, fragile ecosystems easily unbalanced, and very little resiliency.

    Islands are easy to exploit as many have tried and succeeded in destroying everything on islands with non-indigenous evasive species, destroying land and water with pollutants, removing the exotic life that may only exist there to sell as trinkets, or perhaps they are greedy but have a good story and then ask for forgiveness and help expecting the world to pity them and offer charity.

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