A Jewish Perspective on the “Tragedy of the Commons”

By Rabbi Akiva Wolff

Tu b’Shevat is an appropriate time to reflect on our relationship to the natural world, and our responsibility to it.

In 1968, in one of the seminal articles written on the subject of environment protection, Garrett Hardin assured himself a place in the annals of the environmental movement. His article, titled The Tragedy of the Commons, became a ‘must-read’ for every budding environmentalist in the nation if not the world.

The Tragedy of the Commons describes the ruination of a common pastureland, called the commons, by the herdsmen who share it. Each herdsman knows that for every additional animal he adds to his herd, he will recoup all the benefits, whereas the costs – in terms of pasturage for the animal and any damage to the commons caused by additional overgrazing – will be shared by everyone. Therefore, each herdsman tries to maximize the size of his herd, at the expense of everyone else. In Hardin’s words: “Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

Hardin uses the hypothetical case of a common pasture to illustrate what he feared would be the fate of the mankind in the limited global ecosystem. The environment – our life support system – is also a commons, shared by all. From a narrow economic point of view, it makes sense for each individual or corporation to maximize his profit by exploiting the environment as much as possible. The profits will be all his, and the costs – in terms of pollution and the exhaustion of resources – will have to be shared by everyone using the commons. When a large group of individuals act in this manner, the environment – and ultimately everyone – suffers.

Different approaches have been offered towards solving the problem of the commons. Free-market economists suggest that privatization of public resources is the answer. Once the resources go from a public good to a privately-owned good, the owners will have the incentive to conserve, or otherwise protect their property. Others, such as Hardin, take a very different approach. They suggest that the answer is increased government intervention to limit freedom of usage of the commons and protect it for the current and future generations. Hardin also – and this is perhaps the main theme of his article – suggests that the real problem is too many people trying to share the commons, and believed that the only real solution was to take away the ‘freedom to breed’ as he puts it.

Interestingly, a case similar to the tragedy of the commons was described long ago in the Talmud (Baba Kamma 50b), as follows:

A pious man observed someone clearing rocks from his own field and disposing of them on an adjacent public road. ‘Why are you removing rocks from a place that doesn’t belong to you and dumping them in a place that does belong to you’ the pious man asked. The incredulous offender scoffed at the strange comment. Some time later, the offender was forced to sell his field, and while traveling along the same road, stumbled over the same rocks he had disposed of there. The meaning of the pious man’s words finally dawned on him and he exclaimed, ‘That pious man spoke correctly when he asked “why are you removing rocks from a place that doesn’t belong to you and dumping them in a place that does belong to you!”

The Talmud does something very interesting here – it reframes the problem. As a guide to moral action, the Talmud focuses on the responsibility of each individual making the moral decision whether to exploit the commons for his own profit and to the detriment of society, or not. It’s no longer a matter of private versus public ownership or government intervention to save the public from those who would abuse their freedoms. Population control doesn’t enter into the picture. The problem is one of properly understanding one’s place in the broader scheme of things. The Creator runs the world. Our ownership or control of what we think is ‘ours’ is not absolute, nor is it permanent. Circumstances can change in short time. The only resources that the individual has a permanent stake in are the public resources he shares with everyone else around him – these are the resources that must be protected for posterity. The focus of each individual, vis a vis the commons, is on obligations, not rights. When each individual focuses on his obligations – to his Creator, to his fellow man, and to his environment life-support system, then the commons are in good hands.

To return to Hardin’s example of the shared pasture; how might a Talmudic approach work? Each herdsman has the obligation to keep the commons in good shape – after all, he has a ‘permanent’ stake in it. This does not preclude personal profit, but personal profit is no longer the focus. Disease, predators, or other circumstances could come and wipe out his herd. The wellbeing of the commons, in which he shares a permanent stake, will ensure that others will be able to help in his time of need and allow him to start over if need be.

There is another important element. If other herdsmen are overgrazing, can’t our herdsman claim that it is unfair to expect him to do otherwise. Why should he be a ‘friar’ and be the one to lose out? Here we can turn to a more recent ruling, by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. Rabbi Feinstein was asked about the permissibility of a person smoking in a study hall in which others are also smoking. The combined smoke from all the smokers harms those who are inside the study hall. Perhaps, our smoker could argue, he should be permitted to smoke in the hall. After all, he is only slightly contributing to a larger problem for which he, as an individual, could not be held responsible. Even if he personally stopped smoking, there would be little noticeable affect. Rabbi Feinstein responded as follows:

Even though one of the smokers [by himself] would do no real damage, because his smoke would be nullified in a big room like a study hall, nevertheless, since each smoker knows that there are many other smokers [in the place, and therefore, cumulatively, there will be a lot of damaging smoke], he knows that his smoke [also] causes damage and he’s directly causing damage.

Each of us must focus on his responsibility to others – regardless of what others are doing. An individual is not allowed to say “since I’m only one of many people contributing to the problem, I’m not responsible. After all, even without me, the damage would have occurred and if I was the only one doing the activity it wouldn’t have been enough damage to have mattered.” When each individual recognizes his true place in the world and assumes personal responsibility for his actions, there need never be another tragedy of the commons.

This article is excerpted from A Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment, published by Canfei Nesharim in Spring 5765 / 2005.

For more information on Canfei Nesharim and halachic perspectives on protecting the environment, visit http://www.canfeinesharim.org/

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