How Individualy Driven Decisions Produce Bad Results

In 1968, Garrett Hardin published a seminal paper entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”.  It articulates the idea that many groups of people can be acting in their own best interest and yet have a failure for each of them based on their collective actions.

Over the past 2 years I have seen several remarkable embodiments of this principle.

The first occurred to me as I was flying in a small plane from Nairobi to Mpala in Kenya.  Mpala is a 50,000 acre working ranch and open migration space operated cooperatively by The Smithsonian, Princeton University, the Kenyan Wildlife Service and the Kenyan Wildlife Foundation.

On the flight out and back I saw reasonably a large farms that grew vegetables that would be sold to people and restaurants in Nairobi.  These farms were set in the middle of otherwise non-agriculture land and had to have irrigation water supplied from the local river.  Provisions were made to have water pulled from the river for this purpose but there were limits on how much each farm could pull. The water is allocated so that the river continues to flow so that the native animals also can drink and be sustained by the river (elephants, hippos, giraffes, zebra, lions, and many other animals live on these lands)

Different large areas of land are “owned” by various tribes along the route we flew.  These tribes do not war with each other openly as they might have in the past but nevertheless there is apparently little respect between the tribes.

Now if you are an upstream tribe and it has been a particularly dry year and the water in the river is at historic lows, what do you do?  It may be still the case that your allotment of water may be there to be pulled out and there will be barely sufficient water for the downstream tribe’s vegetable farm as well.  But let’s suppose you pull out more than your fair share.  What happens?

Well your crops are abundantly watered and the downstream tribe’s crop fails.  Prices for vegetables soar in Nairobi because the failure of some causes shortages for all and you prosper and the tribe you never liked anyway suffers.  Voila!   When I was there it looked like this was a distinct possibility.  How would you enforce how long a pump runs in the middle of the night anyway?

So now you are thinking, but Frank, that’s a picky example deep 3rd world example.  What about 1st world?

Well glad you asked. The same reasoning happens here too.  The USA and China have the world’s largest coal reserves.  Coal is cheap to mine, relatively cheap to transport by rail and certainly we know how to burn it efficiently so that all that comes up the smokestacks is CO2.


Now if you look at the USA you find that states like California use very little coal so that they can proudly announce that they consume very little coal and that they have plans to phase it out in the future in favor of renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal.  Here is a pie chart of their energy production.

California Energy Production - Click to Enlarge

California Energy Production – Click to Enlarge

But if you look at Indiana the story is very different!

Indiana Energy Production - Click to Enlarge

Indiana Energy Production – Click to Enlarge

Indiana makes nearly all of its electricity from coal.   And changing it will be very tough compared to the task facing California.

California is blessed with lots of sunshine and its Mojave desert is one of the places that will see full scale deployment of solar energy collection and harnessing for the future.  Gigawatt scale plants have been approved and more are on the way.  Wind is also plentiful in California because of its proximity to the Pacific ocean and its inland warmer dry areas natural winds persist much of the year.  Finally we all know that California experiences frequent earth quakes but that also means that it can be a fruitful place to produce geothermal energy as tectonic fault lines are good places to find and exploit that heat source.

In contrast Indiana is not nearly as sunny as California, down by perhaps 30%, it has naturally lower wind speeds as well and it is not located on tectonic faults so no geothermal.  So moving the state to a renewable energy economy will be a much tougher proposition.  In Indiana, where I live part time, there are few people who put much stock in any argument around global warming, CO2 pollution or even moving away from internal combustion engines.

Moreover, electricity produced from coal can be inexpensively sold to energy hungry businesses like glass production and so the state – one of the hardest hit by the last few years economic downturn – has been aggressively pursuing partnerships with such businesses to have them come “home to Indiana”.  At a more grass roots level, the state’s agricultural base has many of the farms where the only energy source cheaply available is electricity.  (Why put gas pipes out so far, but rural electrification was accomplished many years ago.)  So you find many homes that are “all electric” with no alternative.  Indiana has hotter and more humid summers that many parts of California and in the Indiana winters are colder, with more snow and ice than most of California.  So Indiana citizens use more energy year round and are able to produce less from the same renewable sources that CA can tap.


So the problem is to see that while the USA is a renewable energy rich country, the distribution of this energy is not uniform but lumpy and such that over time it will create inequities.  And those inequities will cause things to develop in ways that may not be optimal for the USA or even for the planet as a whole.

Is Indiana a state that in wanting its fair share of the country’s future and in trying to compete for that works against macro overall plans for a renewable energy future?  Are there ways for Indiana to house nuclear plants instead and have a part of the future there instead?  We need to adopt and articulate rational plans that can work and then pursue those through our political processes.  If we don’t we will remain increasingly and bitterly divided.  And that is a recipe for disaster in the face of very strong Chinese competition.

What will we choose?

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Personal Stories, Singapore Incubator, Spiritual Threads

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