In the early 1800s, Victorian economist William Forster Lloyd made a simple proposition that later came to be called the Tragedy of the Commons. We have experienced a variation in recent years as anti-government activists engaged in armed confrontation with the US government.
Lloyd did not envision confrontation, of course. The ivory towers in which economists dwell tend to be peaceful. Conflicts are usually between competing theories.
Lloyd took a look at cattle grazing in England and noticed a trend. When those cattle stood on ground owned by the same folks that owned the cattle, the owners tended to be careful about preserving their acreage. They would move cattle to different sections of land, after a time, to allow plant growth to replenish grazing areas. And they would limit their herds to a sustainable number.
But when common areas of ground, wide expanses owned by the community, were opened to grazing, all hell would break loose. Once a cattle-owner gets to a saturation point on land owned by that same cattle-owner, the incentive to grow the herd is overruled by the loss of land.
But there is not much incentive to self-limit on land owned by the community. The cost resulting from depleting the land is shared by everyone. Each cattle-owner gains a lot from increasing the herd, and loses just a little by depleting the land. The problem is that each cattle-owner loses when other cattle-owners increase their herds, if those herds graze on the common.
The Tragedy of the Commons refers to any situation in which the self-interest of each comes at the expense of all.
There are a number of possible directions William Forster Lloyd’s hypothetical community can take.
Citizens might rely on cattle-owners to self-regulate. If the owners recognize a common interest, they can form a common agreement. Each will graze this much and no more.
If there are just a few cattle barons, and they share all or at least nearly all of the common grazing, a means to detect violations might be all that is needed. If I catch you violating the agreement, the deal is off and all of us will suffer.
If there are a lot of cattle owners, or if the community itself is burdened with too much of the cost, some sort of enforcement and penalty is needed. If you violate the agreement, we will impose enough individual pain to overcome that individual incentive. When everyone backs off, everyone benefits.
If the non-cattle community interest is way greater than the combined interest of the cattle owners, the community may decide to impose an agreement. Families want a place to walk or picnic or fish. Perhaps the cost to the community of replanting is prohibitive.
There are actions that would meet the standards of other ideologies. The commons may simply be placed off limits to cattle. Or a fee may be imposed. In a libertarian world, the commons itself would be abolished and sold to individual owners. There is no Tragedy of the Commons if there is no commons. This is also becoming the preferred solution of Republicans.
The Tragedy of the Commons becomes the complex common problem of all when the commons is not easily divided but does affect everyone: for example the air we breathe or the water we drink.
Those are some of the problems in North Carolina, where the issue is hog farming.
I want to sit out in the front porch today but I can’t because of the spray.
Rene Miller, Warsaw, NC, interviewed by CBS News
Hogs used to be raised on small family farms. But the efficiencies of growth have overcome tradition. Huge mega-corporations with massive populations of hogs have a waste problem. They solve it by channeling hog sewage into mammoth cesspools lovingly known as lagoons.
It’s the way they get rid of their waste that’s really most problematic. The hogs dump their feces and urine on the floor. It goes under the hog house out to a lagoon.
Rick Dove, Water Keeper Alliance
North Carolina prohibits direct dumping of waste into rivers and streams. That sounds like it might work. But runoff from the land is pretty much unregulated.
When lagoons get full, hog factory farms don’t release the waste into waterways. They spray the sewage on fields as manure. That’s the spray Rene Miller complains about. Then it runs into waterways.
But it goes out to the lagoons and then they slop it on the fields. And then it runs off into these drain pipes they have underneath the fields and runs off into the ditches and then goes right down to our streams, creeks, and rivers. And it’s full of nitrogen. It’s basically untreated waste.
Human nature being what it is, people often have a hard time letting go of ideology in the face of mere evidence. Those with a financial stake have an even harder time. When traditional conservative deregulation does not seem to allow for workable answers, it becomes easier to deny the problem exists at all.
This is not a recent human development. Big tobacco once financed an entire enterprise, the Tobacco Institute, denying scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer. Exxon is accused of similarly financing climate change denial, secretly funding contrived studies and fake organizations for decades, a purported campaign only recently revealed.
Factory hog farming in North Carolina is no exception to the eternal temptation. Problem? There is no problem.
I’ve never had a complaint from any of my neighbors.
Jeff Spedding, who farms for Smithfield Foods
Republican representatives in the state legislature are on record. Health problems as well as air and water contamination simply do not exist. Representative Jimmy Dixon speaks for many legislators as he is quoted in the Raleigh News & Observer:
These allegations are at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies. When you talk about spraying effluent on peoples’ houses and peoples’ cars, that does not exist.
In Rene Miller’s case, the neighboring farm corporation denied that manure spray over the fields across the road ever got close to her house, even when the wind shifted. That is, until she provided video evidence of the spray hitting her home.
Residents were there for generations before the massive corporate hog farms bought into adjoining properties. Now, those residents are fighting back. Several lawsuits have been joined by those affected. They are slowly winding through the courts.
The North Carolina legislature has recognized that there is a problem. House Bill 467 was introduced by Representative Jimmy Dixon and passed by the house. It recognizes the issue of complaints of foul odors, contamination, health problems, and quality of life.
The legislation does not attack the air and waste and health issues themselves. It attacks the complaints.
The law will severely restrict any future lawsuits against factory hog farms by distressed neighbors.
The Tragedy of the Commons is not about the tragedy or about the commons. For conservatives in North Carolina, the real tragedy is those who complain about the tragedy.
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