Limits to Growth, Tragedies of the Commons, & the Conflict Problem

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016




This MOOS post makes the argument that the principal obstacle to the sustainability (and growth) of human society is its inability to wisely and equitably handle manage the social, economic, and environmental commons.  Starting with an re-examination of Limits to Growth arguments from the 1979s, we acknowledge that the "invisible hand" of market has been successful in surmounting a great many of the resource limits that people were worried about at the time.  The pursuit of self-interest and relatively simple, market-based, competitive interactions between willing buyers and sellers have been able to maintain a pretty steady flow of the resources that society "demands."  (These resources are, of course, not bring equitably distributed.)  Rather than concluding that society has nothing to worry about, however, we go on to argue that the real limit to growth (and the real driver behind the Limits to Growth "overshoot and collapse" scenarios) is society's inability to protect the Commons.  From a conflict perspective, this is a vastly bigger challenge. It requires getting billions of people to act in mutually supportive ways (even though those actions may be contrary to their short-term self-interest).  A big part of the MOOS project will focus on using our knowledge of conflict processes to help strengthen society's commons management skills.

Referenced Resources:

Donella Meadows, et. al. The Limits to Growth. Universe Books. 1974. Available online at:
Paul Erlich. The Population Bomb.Revised Edition.  Ballantine Books. 1971.
Julian Simon. The Ultimate Resource. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition 1983,
Michael Klare: Grappling With The Age Of 'Tough Oil.' NPR 2011. Accessible at:
Garrett Hardin "The Tragedy of the Commons". Science 162.  1243–1248 1968.
Garrett Hardin and John Baden. Managing the Commons. W. H. Freeman, 1977

Full Transcript:

Hi, this is Guy Burgess. In this Moving Beyond Intractability Seminar post, I'd like to follow up on argument that I made in an earlier post that is that intractable conflict is as serious a threat to human society as climate change. One might understand why this is true if you go back to a book written in the 1970s, The Limits to Growth. The Limits to Growth made an argument that society was facing overshoot and collapse because of two major trends. (See Figure 1.)
One is that it argued that society is dependent upon a fixed stock of natural resources and that those resources were rapidly being depleted. As they are depleted, the cost goes up.  The drag that the cost of those resources places on industrial output and food production would increase, the book argued, ultimately to the point that it will cause the collapse in industrial output and food production. That would be followed by a collapse in population and just the general sort of misery that were talking about when we talk about climate change disasters.

Figure 1 

The other big driving thing behind the limits to growth scenario was population. Certainly as population continued to grow, based in large part on the resources that it was depleting, that would place evermore demand on those resources, further compounding things. At any rate, the ultimate dismal prediction was that industrial output, food, and population would ultimately collapse and that's what folks are trying to figure out how to avoid. This led to books like Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb that gbasically made the argument that the population of humanity is growing so fast that we’re going to out run the resource base and collapse. So, really, the only alternative was to find ways of reducing population growth.

The counterargument was mounted by a guy named Julian Simon, who argued that humans are the ultimate resource and that we don't really face a natural resource limit. Simon put his faith in Adam Smith's idea of the invisible hand of the market that would always create enormous incentives for folks who could produce natural resources less expensively, even in the face of diminishing supplies.  They could do this, not only from the currently exploited resources, but also find substitutes way of doing the things we want to do with those resources less expensively or by using completely different resources.

This led these two guys to make a very famous bet.  In 1980, Simon and Ehrlich picked a package of natural resources that they thought was typical of the resource base upon which society dependent.  And if I recall correctly, they bet 10 years out about what would happen.  Simon bet that the cost of those resources, adjusting for inflation, would actually drop. Ehrlich bet that the prices would go way up because we were running into the resource limits.  The truth is that in this case Simon won and Ehrlich lost.

Fast forwarding, in the early 2000's we thought that we were running into these limits again—this time specifically regarding oil.  There were books Like The Age Of Tough Oil and Wake UpThis is Peak Oil  They argued that pretty soon were going to start running out of oil and terrible things were going to happen. But then we invented fracking! And what do you know, we have more oil than we know what to do with and the world oil price is plummeting!

So this suggests a change to the original club of Rome graph.  Instead of having resources collapsing, we may well have--at least when you adjust for substitutions and all that--the prospects for a continuing increase in resources. (See Figure 2)

Figure 2 

So then we might say, “hey there are no limits to growth! There is no overshoot and collapse! The free market fixes all! No need to worry, we’re fine! This attitude is reflected in people’s willingness to trust in the markets, which is a widespread political phenomenon. A common view illustrating this is that the government needs to “just get out of the way!” Let the markets do their thing and everything will be all right.  Ayn Rand is the poster child for that sort of unlimited market philosophy.

But unfortunately, there are some issues here. Certainly, if you remove the resource limit, then industrial output, food and population are going to continue to grow with no obvious limits in sight. But the problem was that there was another little graph in here—down at the bottom.  (See Figure 3)

Figure 3 

That is a pollution one—that’s the green line—and it goes continuously up!  So even if you don't have resource limits, or population limits, everything keeps growing – including the pollution burden on the planet.  So you run the risk of what is called a concept first introduced by Garret Harden, which he called “the tragedy of the commons.”  (More on that in a minute.)

So then you go back to the original club of Rome graph, you can see that pollution comes up and then that also starts crashing as output is diminished by exploding pollution.  So pollution, not resources, is the real limit to growth. That's what we’re trying to find some way to deal with.

So in a sense, the real limits to growth is not the ability to produce more resources--markets to take care of that. And one of the other things that is important to understand is that markets are a very simple organizational process.  They  are transactions between willing buyers and willing sellers. It doesn't take any large-scale collaboration agreement for markets to work. It is just cooperation between buyers and sellers. I want something and you get it to me for cheaper, I’ll buy it. Even giant corporations are basically networks of willing buyers and willing sellers.

The problem with the Tragedy of the Commons is that a tragedy arises when lots of willing buyer and seller interactions wind up depleting the commons on which everyone depends. In Garrett Hardin's original formulation, ranchers grazed sheep on a “commons” in the center of a town.  The incentive was for everybody to graze more cs on the “free” commons.  But eventually, all those sheep overgraze the grass, and all the grass and sheep die. This really happened in the American West. If you wonder why there is sagebrush everywhere now, not grass, it is is because we over-grazed the American West. There was a big drought, the giant cattle herds of the 1870s collapsed, and sagebrush was the only thing cows wouldn't eat. They would rather die first. So the real challenge, the real limit to growth is how we avoid tragedies of the commons like this.

Now obviously, climate change is just such a tragedy of the commons.  There are a bunch of other planetary boundaries that we may be crossing too.  The big thing here is that we've got to find ways of addressing all this—before we collapse!

The other thing to keep in mind is when we’re talking about protecting the commons is that there are two philosophic perspectives. One is the hard-core environmental perspective which may be best exemplified by Earth First, which is a pretty extreme group which—on occasion has gotten precariously close to advocating and/or enacting eco-terrorism. Their motto is “no compromise in defense of Mother Earth!” They see human society as a cancer growing on the planet. So their idea of protecting the commons is to protect the commons FROM people.  Understandably, many other people don't think that is such a good idea. So you certainly can't build a big coalition behind that.

On the other hand, folks like the Human Security Working Group focus on protecting the commons FOR people. And that, I think, is what we really need to do. But keep in mind, the commons isn't just the environment. It is the global financial system. It is a global trade system. It's a wide range of social and cultural and security systems that we depend upon in order for society to continue to operate.  So the key feature of protecting the commons is preventing Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market from turning into what Kenneth Boulding called the” invisible fist.” By that he meant that we had to prevent the pursuit of self-interest from producing tragedies of the commons that hurt everybody. We have got to somehow find a mechanism for balancing the competing interests of the entire society in ways that protect the commons.

This view makes the management of the commons the ultimate intractable conflict problem. It has to operate on the scale of billions of people, so is not a bilateral willing buyer willing seller interaction. It now involves 7 billion people! That requires a cooperative effort at a level that humans have never been able to do before!

The other thing to understand is there are multitudes of independent actors each with very limited influence on the system, each trying to “do their own thing,” sometimes, maybe with a certain amount of altruism. But still, you're talking about protecting the commons when the impacts of protecting the commons are really long term-- beyond the terms of office of key decision-makers, in fact, beyond their lifetime. So, many think “why should I do it?  “Why should I worry about something that won’t affect me—or my constituents—or maybe even my children? In addition, there are still selfish Machiavellian actors. There's the fact that humans engage in an awful lot of non-rational decision-making. There is limited, biased information. There's all sorts of technical complexity, and of course chaos.

It’s clear we have to get a whole lot better at dealing with all of these problems. And what we want to start exploring here is what is it going to really take to do that?

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