Tipping Points

The living fabric of this planet – its ecosystems and biodiversity – are in rapid decline worldwide. This is visible and palpable and is variously due to commercial over-exploitation, or population pressures, or a raft of unhelpful policies, or some combination. At a very fundamental human level, however, it is due to the lack of awareness that there is a problem with human society being disconnected from nature, from the knowledge that our natural capital is the source and sustenance, not only of life, but our social and economic lives.


Tragedy of the Commons (ToC) Principles:

The Tragedy of the Commons is an ecological concept that refers to the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to their long-term best interests. Ecologist Garrett Hardin famously explored this social dilemma in “The Tragedy of the Commons”.

Social Trap is a term used by psychologists to describe a situation in which a group of people act to obtain short-term individual gains, which in the long run leads to a loss for the group as a whole; such as for example overfishing, energy “brownout” and “blackout” power outages during periods of extreme temperatures, overgrazing on the Sahelian Desert, and the destruction of the rainforest by logging interests and agriculture. Social fence refers to a short-term avoidance behavior by individuals that leads to a long-term loss to the entire group.

Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, 1968 essay focussed on clarifying how the population problem was a moral problem, and required a moral solution. Hardin showed why Adam Smith’s laissez-faire doctrine and belief that the invisible hand enables a system of individuals to pursue their private interests which will automatically serve the collective interest; is flawed.

Hardin’s key metaphor, the Tragedy of the Commons (ToC) showed why Smith was wrong. Hardin argued that when a resource is held “in common,” with many people having “ownership” and access to it, a self-interested “rational” actor will decide to increase his or her exploitation of the resource since he or she receives the full benefit of the increase, but the costs are spread among all users. When many people think this way, the tragic result is the overexploitation and ruin of the commons. Similar to the herdsman, couples expect to experience a large benefit from having a second child, or consuming above carrying capacity, without having to bear the full social and ecological cost of their choices. Hardin concluded that in the absence of restricting the consequences of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, would be nuclear war.


Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons Assumptions & Solutions:

The world is biophysically finite.

  1. The more people there are, and the more they consume, the less each person’s share must be.
  2. Technology (ie, agricultural) cannot fundamentally alter this.
  3. We can’t both maximize the number of people and satisfy every desire or “good” of everyone.
  4. Practically, biophysical limits dictate we must both stabilize population, and consumption.
  5. Both steps will generate opposition, since many people will have to relinquish their procreation and/or consumption behaviour.

Over-population and overconsumption are example’s of the tragedy of the commons (ToC).

  1. Commons are un-owned or commonly-held “pool” resources that are “free,” or not allocated by markets.
  2. Hardin’s ToC model assumes that individuals are short-term, self-interested “rational” actors, seeking to maximize their own gains.
  3. Such actors will exploit commons (have more babies, add more cattle to pastures, pollute the air, overconsume) as long as they believe the costs to them individually are less than the benefits.
  4. The system of individual welfare insulates individuals from bearing the full costs of over-reproducing, and corporate welfare insulates corporations from bearing the costs of overproduction.
  5. When every individual believes and behaves in this manner, commons are quickly filled, degraded, and ruined along with their erst-while exploiters.
  6. A laissez-faire system (letting individuals choose as they like) will not “as if by an invisible hand” solve over-population and/or overconsumption.

The “commons” system for breeding and consuming must be abandoned (as it has been for other resources).

  1. In other words, something must restrain individual reproduction and consumption.
  2. but it must not be individual conscience; appealing to conscience will only result in fewer people with conscience in the population (assuming here that it is genetic, or perfectly transmitted by learning).
  3. It should be accomplished by “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.”
  4. Sacrificing freedom to breed and consume will obtain for us other more important freedoms which will otherwise be lost.
  5. “Coercive” restrictions on breeding and consuming could take a number of forms.
  6. The “right” to determine the size of one’s family and socio-economic consumption status, must be rescinded.
  7. This will protect the conscientious traits in the population.

The problem is then to gain peoples’ consent to a system of coercion.

  1. People will consent if they understand the dire consequences of letting the population growth rate and consumption growth rate, be set only by individuals’ choices.
  2. Educating all people about the ToC, its consequences, and the alternatives to it, is necessary.
  3. Then various restraints and incentives for low reproduction and consumption, below the commons carrying capacity limits, can and must be instituted.


I=PAT: Reducing Human Impact on the Environment requires population & consumption reduction.

IPAT Equation

The impact of humans on the environment and the demands that people place on the resources available on the planet can be summarised by what is known as the Ehrlich or IPAT equation, I=PAT. I = impact on the environment or demand for resources, P = population size, A = affluence and T = technology.

The two most important conclusions deriving from this relationship are that:

  • the Earth can support only a limited number of people, at a certain level of affluence, in a sustainable manner; and
  • Population and Consumption must be reduced to below carrying capacity.