The tragedy of the commons

Go to the Botanical Gardens of Asheville on any given day and, if the day is sunny and warm, you're bound to see families with small children playing in the creek. I took my kids there recently. After an initial inspection of the riverbed, it was discovered that there were a few pieces of broken glass a wary parent would remove before letting their children play therein.

My efforts to clean up, though incomplete, were rewarded by a couple of pounds of glass shards and cans that were no longer any danger to tender little feet. The apparent age of much of this glass and metal led me to assume that such a cleanup has not been performed on the creek in the botanical gardens for quite some time.

Considering how beloved are the gardens, it is difficult to believe how dangerous it is to play in the creek there. It is the tragedy of the commons, written in the sand of the creek bed.

For those who are unaware of this concept, the tragedy of the commons is an idea first aired in print by ecologist Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article in Science, in which the author describes the dilemma that occurs when a shared resource upon which individuals act independently is ultimately depleted or degraded. This eventuates simply because no one takes responsibility for the cumulative damage being done to the resource, as each of the individuals represents only a small part of the total usage of the resource.

This only partly [applies] to the creek bed. The staff at the gardens does a wonderful job tending to the verdant and varied flora and the many structures and paths of the sanctuary. That the creek bed falls outside of their mandate is itself an open invitation to any of the many caring Asheville residents who frequent the gardens to take an active role in promoting the health and cleanliness of the ecosystem there. …

— Josiah Ramsay Johnston

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12 thoughts on “The tragedy of the commons

  1. The concept of “the tragedy of the commons” is an argument in favor of private property, over against so-called public property. That property is public is the tragedy. Property that belongs to everyone belongs to no one. That is truly tragic. Q.E.D.

  2. bsummers

    Yes, better that the area of the Botanical Gardens should be owned by one wealthy person who knows that there’s no broken glass anywhere, because he’s the only person, aside from his guests and his servants, who gets to experience it.

    The author alludes to a solution, but then pretends it doesn’t exist – this public resource should be adequately funded so that there is staff and trash cans, etc. dedicated to keep it clean.

    No, you’re right. Sorry – sell it off to whatever hedge fund billionaire needs someplace to park his loot, and trust in His Lordship to lock the bottle-breaking hoi polloi out forever.

  3. ron ogle

    [ from Wikipedia]
    In English social and economic history, enclosure is the process which ends traditional rights such as mowing meadows for hay, or grazing livestock on common land formerly held in the open field system. Once enclosed, these uses of the land become restricted to the owner, and it ceases to be common land. In England and Wales the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land is fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. The process of enclosure began to be a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons had become largely restricted to rough pasture in mountainous areas and to relatively small parts of the lowlands.
    The process of enclosure has sometimes been accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed, and remains among the most controversial areas of agricultural and economic history in England. Marxist and neo-Marxist historians argue that rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit. This created a landless working class that provided the labour required in the new industries developing in the north of England. For example: “In agriculture the years between 1760 and 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which, in village after village, common rights are lost”. “Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery”

  4. infinitybbc

    such is why public land is so much more expensive to keep up than private.

    it’s not that i believe there is anything necessarily wrong with areas where there is public land, but the costs to maintain it need to be carefully considered.

    such is my concern for all these “GREENWAY” plans… can the City/County truly afford it? with the past history of how money is mis-managed (i.e.: Pack Park), i tend to doubt it! 8-)

  5. Johnny

    Sounds to me like Mr. Johnston will likely be contacting the Botanical Gardens about volunteering to organize a little creek clean-up operation! Awesome—-thank you Mr. Johnston!

    Mr. Peck’s narrative (well, bloviating nonsense) again falls on amused ears.

  6. ChristopherCNC

    It is a flowing stream in an urban setting. I tend to doubt the users of the Asheville Botanical Garden are tossing their cans and bottles in the creek. Volunteering to clean up the section in the botanical garden is a great idea, but you will need to adopt the entire water shed to make a real impact.

  7. D. Dial

    I only know for sure what I see with my own eyes. I am in that garden a lot. I always stop on the bridges to admire and appreciate the pristine creek which always is changing, due to rain, drought, etc. On most warm day weekends, there are many kids playing in the creek bed. I’ve yet to seen any child being treated for cuts from glass shards in the creek bed.

    I think this is a wild exageration to make a political point.

    • bill smith

      I was wondering about that as well. It’s been years since I’ve been there, but I know i waded in those waters barefoot on many an afternoon. Never saw or felt any glass.

    • Josiah Johnston

      I was not making any political point, but I did pull out three trash bags full of glass from that creek that day. I took pictures of them.

  8. D. Dial

    And you still could Bill. It’s still a beautiful, natural oasis of verdant greenery, and sparkling creeks of cool, clear water, tumbling over polished rocks that have been there for eons.

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