Brendan Tang

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While the essential idea behind Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons is sound, the text itself contains some small sections that appear over-simplified. Here I offer a critique of two of these sections.

Hardin denies a laissez-faire approach to human breeding by arguing that "Any people that has intuitively identified its optimum point will soon reach it, after which its growth rate becomes and remains zero." It is true that, left to their own intuition, modern societies have experienced growth rates that propel the population far above what its resources seem to be able to comfortably support, and show no signs of stopping. Yet to say that a growth rate of zero would indicate achievement of such an "optimal population" rests on the assumption that it is a constant value. The fact that humans can manipulate the Net Primary Production of any area of land above and below NPP null (through, for example, intensive agriculture or deforestation) is only one of many reasons that optimal population is best defined, if at all, by some formula dependent on many, or even infinite variables. Furthermore, the optimal population—although mathematically conceptualized—remains an abstract concept whose practical application to reality is hypothetical at best.

The second part of Hardin's famous essay that I wish to point out is a passage under the title "Pathogenic Effects of Conscience." The previous passage, titled "Conscience is Self-Eliminating," makes a sound case against the use of appeals to the conscience to prevent over-population resting on a straightforward, Darwinian argument. Yet this passage follows up with an argument against the same use of appeals to conscience founded upon an incomplete, over-simplified understanding of the human psyche and a loosely connected selection of quotes and anecdotes. First, Hardin posits without support from the psychology literature that an appeal to the conscience simultaneously relays the following two contradictory communications: "(i) (intended communication) 'If you don't do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen'; (ii) (the unintended communication) 'If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons.'" Hardin thus makes the unfounded leap from appeals to conscience to "what Bateson has called a 'double bind,'" then goes on to generalize the "plausible case for viewing the double bind as an important factor in the genesis of schizophrenia" to mental health in general. He offers, seemingly in support of this generalization, a Nietzsche quote. He then jumps from anecdotal political commentary to representing the "modern point of view" on the inutility of guilt with an anecdotal quote from a New York Review of Books article ( primarily on the subject of "Racial Spite." This "modern point of view"—in fact not empirically derived or extensively cited—posits that guilt produces nothing but anxiety. From this shaky ground Hardin leaps to attack anxiety in general.

To be fair, this last attack is reigned in by the admission that "proof is difficult." Yet for the almost mechanically rational nature of his thought process, Hardin writes it down and supports it in a markedly unscientific manner. At least that is the impression to be got from a few select bits of Tragedy of the Commons. Perhaps his intention was to reach a wider audience by avoiding a sea of citations and statistics. Btang 03:34, 11 March 2013 (UTC)

  • Hardin had some of his own agendas in those comments about psychology -- but, yes, they were certainly less careful/rigorous than some other parts of the argument and seem pretty cavalier in modern context. But maybe the interesting question, as may be implied in your last paragraph, is whether he was offering them as rhetorical 'straw men' to get people to react and, if so, whether they were effective... Kwoods 23:37, 16 March 2013 (UTC)

Abstract 2

With contemporary culture placing so much attention on climate change and our vulnerability to the forces of nature, we are apt to think that—like our attention to it—ecological fragility is a recent development. A theme that we've been touching on a lot lately is the idea that there never really was a point when we as humans were safe from nature's whim. And furthermore, there never really was a point when nature was safe from ours. In her article for Discover Magazine, Wright outlines the development of Harvey Weiss's hypothesis that the fall of many ancient civilizations surrounding the Fertile Crescent was largely due to a drought. Droughts often come about as a result of intensive, unsustainable agriculture. It wouldn't be unreasonable to hypothesize that even in the far distant past, long before the industrial revolution, agriculture enabled this mutual destruction of man and nature. Ruddiman offers more support for this idea in his article for Scientific American, where he outlines support for his own hypothesis that human in fact began significantly altering atmospheric levels of greenhouse gas thousands of years ago "by clearing forests and irrigating fields to grow crops." Diamond brings up the overkill hypothesis, in which the quick extinction of large mammals in North America quickly follows the continent's being inhabited for the first time by humans. These three are only a few examples of thought surrounding the idea that humans have been altering their environments in ways that come back to haunt them for much longer than the past 200 years—perhaps even since homo sapiens first evolved. In each of these examples, it is important to note that food production or acquisition was the most important theme. Perhaps food production invariably leads us to significantly changing our environments; perhaps it is the driving force behind this fundamental human quality. If so, it will be important not to ask whether we can cease changing our environments and revert to the pastoral time when humans and nature existed in harmony, the one not significantly affecting the other. Our readings are quickly convincing me that such a time never existed. Instead, it is important to ask if and how we can change our environments in positive, sustainable ways.

Ruddiman, William F. "How did humans first alter global climate?." Scientific American 292.3 (2005): 46-53. Wright, Karen. "Empires in the Dust: Collapse of Bronze Age Cultures in 2000 BCE." Discover Magazine 12.59 (1998). Btang 01:31, 28 March 2013 (UTC)

  • But does 'alteration' necessarily mean 'destruction'? Yes, Ruddiman claims we've been altering climate for millennia -- but has that alteration been a bad thing in terms of human condition, or might we be worse off without it (with ice sheets coming down from the north...). Your final sentence implies that human-caused change might not always be seen as bad; if that's so, might it be worth looking at historical changes to explore whether some fo them might have had positive consequences (particularly those caused by human activity...) Kwoods 13:43, 14 April 2013 (UTC)
  • While you did not have the opportunity to read it before this abstract, perhaps Dockrill and Bond's "Sustainability and Resilience in Prehistoric North Atlantic Britain: The Importance of a Mixed Paleoeconomic System" would be useful for further reflection on positive interaction between humans and environment. From what I've gleamed about 'sustainable' agriculture, land is most able to maintain resilience through diversity of crops and rotation of where crops are planted throughout time. This, along with Dockrill and Bond's argument that a mixed paleoeconomic system allows for the longevity of settlements, seems to suggest that variety truly is the sustainable spice of life. Whether discussing agricultural practices or food acquisition in general, perhaps a acknowledging the possible benefits of an assorted food strategy would be a good stepping stone in this inquiry. Rkelleher 14:14, 15 April 2013 (UTC)
  • You say, "there never really was a point when we as humans were safe from nature's whim," but I wonder if human have always been aware of the impact they have on climate? Cuden 17:33, 15 April 2013 (UTC)


One of the other classes I'm taking this term is Political Economy of Trade with Michael Rolleigh. In the past couple days I've been thinking about an interesting parallel between ecology and economics. I'm increasingly seeing similarities between the way we talk about ecological succession and the way that economists talk about growth. Advocates of open markets argue that, when left to their own devices, economies will naturally tend towards growth, in the same way that we talk in class about ecological succession leading to climatic climax. Yet ecologies with similar conditions do not all come to rest on the same climatic climax. And if the natural progression of economics is towards growth, why do we see "growth disasters" such as Venezuela or Ghana with negative growth rates? The explanation that Michael Rolleigh cites—that these countries have experienced inhibiting non-economic factors such as civil war—bears a striking resemblance to the way that biological disturbances such as forest fires can break up the primary succession of an ecosystem. We are starting to see more and more evidence that ecological succession doesn't occur quite so reliably as was once thought. One example that comes to mind is the evidence presented in Dupoouey et al.'s paper, which supports the idea that the effects of agriculture are still visible in land that has otherwise been uniformly handled for ~8000 years. Reading for the economics course seems to suggest that, controlling for other factors, free trade reliably leads to growth, at least on a theoretical basis (Irwin, 1996). Although perhaps the more appropriate parallel to draw is that changing markets—like ecological disturbance—does seem to cause lasting change in the composition of an economy. This last point is evident in the opening of Midwestern markets to New England catalyzing the shift from subsistence agriculture to forestry and tourism (Raup, 1966). Although it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from them, it is interesting to investigate parallels that run between disciplines.

Works Cited Dupouey, J. L., et al. "Irreversible impact of past land use on forest soils and biodiversity." Ecology 83.11 (2002): 2978-2984. Irwin, Douglas A. Against the tide: An intellectual history of free trade. Princeton University Press, 1996. Raup, Hugh M. "The view from John Sanderson's farm: a perspective for the use of the land." Forest & Conservation History 10.1 (1966): 2-11. Btang 23:00, 18 April 2013 (UTC)

  • Yes, conventional succession theory and neoclassical econ theory share that feature; they both revolve around dynamic properties that are supposedly 'built in' to the system. A good catch. So, yes, there might also be parallels in noting that there seem to be situations in both types of systems where the supposedly inevitable dynamics don't quite play out the way they're 'supposed to'. SO, the question now might be what that tells us; could be that these 'exceptions' are just special cases that are interesting to look at, but don't really counter the generality of the theory -- or it could be that the theories are based on some fundamentally flawed assumptions. How do we figure which? (By the way, if you haven't noticed, we have an environmental economist starting on the faculty next term!) Kwoods 01:10, 6 May 2013 (UTC)


Easterbrook's article about Norman Borlaug mentions a debate that was going on around the time of writing about whether high-yield crops from Borlaug's Green Revolution should be introduced to the developing countries of Africa. "Western environmental groups have campaigned against introducing high-yield farming techniques to Africa, and have persuaded image-sensitive organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to steer clear of Borlaug," says Easterbrook. The argument then centered on the environment, and it still does today. Industrial agriculture has received a good deal of environmental critique—Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is an illustrative example—and the debate over possible environmental trade-offs is something I'm sure we'll continue to examine in class. I would like, however, to make a slight digression into the realm of economics and posit that it may not even be beneficial economically to introduce high-yield agriculture to a developing nation.

It is easy to assume that a better harvest in a developing country where many people farm would be beneficial. Yet developing countries have a comparative disadvantage in agriculture due to a lack of technology boosting productivity in the sector. Although high-yield variations of crops are one of those technologies, without others such as tractors, fertilizers, etc. the type of high-yield industrial agriculture which they are adapted to is not economically desirable. Since developing countries already have a comparative disadvantage in agriculture, green revolution crops may increase yields enough to encourage the sector to expand without making it much more profitable. This would direct the economy away from industries in which higher growth might be expected, such as those in the manufacturing sector. The manufacturing sector not only would cause greater growth, but would produce exports which could be used to import cheaper agricultural goods from a more developed nation which does have a comparative advantage in agriculture. I would posit that more useful to a developing country than green revolution crops, if not a better-developed manufacturing sector, would be education in low-cost permaculture techniques and soil science. At least this way yield could be increased without much increasing input costs or alleged environmental harm.

Also worth noting: Easterbrook cites some who argue that keeping high-yield agriculture out of the developing world would curb the world's rapidly growing population. Easterbrook presents the counter-argument that "Karan Singh is reported to have said, 'Development is the best contraceptive.'" Actually, as we've talked about in my Econ class, educating girls is the best contraceptive, but that only comes with development and it's beside the point. It's true that as a country's GDP/capita rises its fertility rate falls. But I think that a lot of economists would argue the best route to higher GDP/capita in a developing country is definitely not to expand the agricultural sector. Btang 04:15, 6 May 2013 (UTC)

  • So three options for developing world implied here: a) focus on developing high-yield (or high-nutrition) crops that DON'T require 'industrial' inputs (i.e., change incentives for plant breeders?); b) focus on using traditional/available 'low-input' crops in cheap 'permaculture' approaches (might achieve sustainability, but would it increase food supply?); c) don't focus on ag development there, but on increasing wealth (which most would agree is most effectively done through other kinds of economic development) to encourage reduced population and ability to buy food. Interestingly divergent ideas. Can/should they be combined? If not, then which? Kwoods 14:08, 22 May 2013 (UTC)

ABSTRACT 5 We've been reading a lot in class about the development of perennial varieties of staple crops. A common claim is that these varieties provide increased sustainability because they can make better use of marginal land, they are more conducive to no-till agriculture, and they are better at maintaining topsoil. In fact, it has been suggested that perennial variations could better facilitate returning marginal lands to a productive state, through contributing to soil fertility without the need for chemical fertilizers. While increased fertility without chemical fertilizers sounds great to me, I wonder if perennial agriculture is productive enough to coexist with conservation. The reason that I stress this concern is that perennial agriculture—at least when it focuses on returning marginal lands to production—represents a strategy that looks more like land-sharing than land-intensifying. This strategy entails having a more benign effect on the land being used for production, but compared to intensification, it means lower yield per acre. I worry that a focus on perennial agriculture might lead to lower yield per acre, which, combined with a high enough demand, might mean going beyond re-appropriating marginal land and moving into clearing forests and other relatively undisturbed ecosystems. If perennial agriculture were shown to produce yields on par with intensive monoculture (which, as Pollan demonstrates, has a whole slew of its own problems), it would represent an ideal strategy for feeding a growing population while dealing with global warming and other issues of conservation. Btang 03:16, 20 May 2013 (UTC)

  • Maybe as the article, "Can Intensive Farming Save Nature?" says, different regions may be fit for different types of agriculture. So, perennial agriculture might the solution for marginal soils, but not in places that need to focus on habitat conservation.

Cuden 16:17, 23 May 2013 (UTC)

  • I share your same fears that land sharing, in this case with the planting of perennials on marginal lands, can be pitted against conservation. Based on human history, we are generally a species that has taken advantage of every opportunity for growth. If perennials yield less than our current approaches in the U.S., I could realistically see the possibility in sacrificing conservation of some areas in order to expand. I think an important question we have to ask ourselves is, is this a black and white issue? Is conservation all or nothing, so to speak? Advocates from any position often take a very no-budge stance on issues; the stereotype of environmentalists chaining themselves to trees that are destined to be cut down comes to mind. But would it be the worst thing in the world if we were to examine our regional landscapes, analyze their value (economically, aesthetically, recreationally, etc) and pinpoint areas where it wouldn't be the end-all-be-all if that land were converted to farming? Or would this mean a slippery slope to the end of conservation? Agercak 16:19, 23 May 2013 (UTC)