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Parks and Carrying Capacity: Commons Without Tragedy available in Hardcover
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About the Author:
Robert E. Manning is a professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont
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Parks and Carrying Capacity
Commons Without Tragedy
By Robert E. Manning
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2007 Robert E. Manning
All rights reserved.
The Tragedy of the Commons
Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
In 1968, a haunting paper—"The Tragedy of the Commons"—was published in the prestigious journal Science (Hardin 1968). Now a foundational piece of the environmental literature, this paper identified a set of environmental problems—issues of the "commons"—that have no technical solutions but must be resolved through social action. Hardin's ultimate prescription for managing the commons was "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon": without such collective action, environmental (and related social) tragedy is inevitable.
Hardin began his paper with an illustration using perhaps the oldest and simplest example of an environmental commons, a shared pasture:
Picture a pasture open to all. It is expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on [this] commons.... What is the utility of adding one more animal? ... Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility [to the herdsman] is nearly +1.... Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular ... herdsman is only a fraction of–1. Adding together the ... partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to [the] herd. And another; and another.... Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that [causes] him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited.... Freedom in commons brings ruin to all. (1244)
Hardin went on to identify and explore other examples of environmental commons, ultimately addressing human population growth. However, one of his examples of the tragedy of the commons—one that resonates more urgently each year—is national parks and protected areas:
The National Parks present another instance of the working out of the tragedy of the commons. At present, they are open to all without limit. The parks themselves are limited in extent—there is only one Yosemite Valley—whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone. (1245)
The tragedy of the commons has become one of the most compelling and powerful ideas in the environmental literature. The original paper has been republished in over one hundred environmental and public policy–related anthologies and has stimulated an enormous body of research and writing. A recent bibliography on papers related to issues of managing environmental and related commons includes over thirty-seven thousand citations (Hess 2004). This work has been applied to a growing list of commons-related resources and issues, including wildlife and fisheries, surface and ground water, range lands, forests, parks, the atmosphere, climate, oil and other energy resources, food, biodiversity, and population. The conceptual foundation of the tragedy of the commons has even been extended to a growing array of public resources that are not necessarily environmentally related, such as education (J. Brown 2000), medicine (R. Lewis 2004), and the infosphere or cyberspace (Greco and Floridi 2004). Recognizing the importance of common property resources and the issues identified by Hardin's 1968 paper, a special issue of Science was published in 2003 commemorating the thirty-fifth anniversary of publication of "The Tragedy of the Commons" and assessing the growing scientific and professional literature it has spawned.
Hardin and others have noted that the issue of managing common property resources has a long history. In fact, nascent interest in the "commons" was expressed by Aristotle, who wrote, "What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. Men pay most attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common" (quoted in Hardin and Baden 1977, xi). The first modern expression of the commons issue is generally credited to Lloyd (1833) who published two lectures in England titled On the Checks to Population, which suggested the environmental degradation caused by unfettered population growth and the associated inability of the Earth to support very large numbers of humans. More contemporary, scientifically based explications of the commons were first offered in the 1950s in the context of ocean fisheries (Gordon 1954; Scott 1955).
Common property resources can be defined technically as having several characteristics (Ostrom et al. 1999; Feeny et al. 1990; Ostrom and Ostrom 1977; Greco and Floridi 2004). First, as the term suggests, ownership of the resource is held in common, often by a large number of owners who have independent rights to use the resource. Second, control of access to the resource is problematic for several potential reasons, including the large size or area of the resource, its pervasive character, its migratory nature, or its political intransigence. Third, the level of exploitation by one user adversely affects the ability of other users to exploit the resource. Hardin (1968) and others have noted that in addition to conventional common property resources in which tangible (e.g., forage, fish) and intangible (e.g., enjoyment) benefits are extracted from a resource, there are also "reverse" commons in which pollution is deposited into a resource that is owned in common, such as the oceans and the atmosphere. Management problems associated with common property resources typically arise and need attention when demand for access to the resource exceeds its supply.
Mutual Coercion, Mutually Agreed Upon
Beyond describing common property resources and their potentially tragic consequences, Hardin also discussed how this tragedy might be averted. First, he asserted that there are (ultimately) no technological solutions to the tragedy of the commons. Increased efficiency of resource use might postpone the need to address this issue, but some limitations on resource use will eventually be required. (In fact, Hardin suggested that in some cases, such as ocean fisheries, improved technology in the form of more efficient and effective harvesting may exacerbate or hasten the tragedy of the commons.) Hardin suggested that only two forms of ownership or management could address the tragedy of the commons: private or government ownership. Private ownership "internalizes" both the benefits and costs of exploitation (benefits and costs are both borne by the owner) leading to more rational and productive management. Government ownership allows for a broad and long-term management perspective that is focused on the ultimate welfare of society as a whole (as opposed to an individual), thus offering protection for resources that are ultimately important to society.
Western society, and the United States in particular, relies heavily on private ownership and management of resources to guide production and consumption of goods and services. This approach is inherent in the capitalist, free market economic system. According to the concept of "the invisible hand" proposed by Adam Smith, the decisions of individuals in a free market economy lead to outcomes that ultimately benefit society at large (Smith 1776). While this notion is generally accepted as valid, there are notable exceptions in which government (or social) action is required to address a number of "market failures" or "externalities" (Farley and Daly 2004). For example, the full costs of pollution (e.g., wastes from production processes that are emitted into the atmosphere) are sometimes not paid by producers, leading to below-cost pricing and overproduction of such goods and services and resulting pollution levels that may be harmful to society. Moreover, in some cases it may be difficult to exclude potential users from selected goods and services. National defense and parks and protected areas are representative examples. In such cases, private entities cannot capture the full benefits of producing such goods and services, leading to undersupply. In the case of these market failures, social action (usually in the form of government control) is required through regulation of the free market economy (e.g., laws against excessive pollution, taxes on pollution) and direct government production or management (e.g., a national military, a national park system).
These types of social actions are manifestations of "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" that Hardin suggests are ultimately needed to resolve the tragedy of the commons. They are limitations on resource use that apply to all potential users and that all (or at least a majority of) users agree are needed. Parking meters to regulate the use of parking spaces in cities (a common property resource) are a simple example of such "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon." Without such regulatory institutions, the ability to park in most cities would be unpredictable and chaotic. While these "coercions" may be distasteful because they limit individual freedom, they are needed to protect the greater welfare of society. In rationalizing such limitations, Hardin suggests that "Freedom is the recognition of necessity" (which he attributes to the philosopher Hegel). Only by instituting the mechanisms that will ensure our ultimate well-being will we be truly free to pursue our higher aspirations, both as individuals and as a society.
Early theoretical work suggested that the "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" required to resolve the tragedy of the commons can (perhaps must) be a natural outgrowth of cultural or social norms. Norms are a long-standing theoretical construct in the social sciences and represent rules (both formal and informal) that guide human behavior. Such norms are needed in society to provide order and predictability to social life. Most people abide by social norms recognizing that they serve a needed purpose and because formal or informal sanctions in the form of rewards and punishments apply to associated behavior. Norms are discussed in more detail in chapter 5.
More recent empirical research has found that many societies have developed social norms to guide management of common property resources. In this way, there are many examples in which common property resources have been managed in accordance with carrying capacity over very long periods of time (Netting 1972; Netting 1976; McKean 1982; Maass and Anderson 1986; Glick 1970; H. Lewis 1980; Ostrom 1990; National Research Council 1986). Many of the examples described in the literature apply to indigenous cultures and subsistence economies, and nearly all are in the context of local communities or small scales. But some are found in the context of contemporary market-based economies as well. For example, fishermen in Maine have developed informal means of regulating the size and allocation of the harvest to help ensure economically and ecologically sustainable levels of lobster populations (Wilson 1977).
The literature on game theory is also suggestive of the role of communication and cooperation as a means of solving the tragedy of the commons and related social problems (Kuhn 2003; Greco and Floridi 2004; Muhsam 1977). The classic case of the "prisoner's dilemma" is illustrative. While there are many variations of this "game," the most elemental version is a scenario in which two suspects in a crime are arrested and held in isolation from one another. Each prisoner has the option of maintaining silence, confessing, or implicating the other, and there are logical rewards and punishments associated with each of these choices. Game theory suggests that if each prisoner acts strictly according to his own self-interest, the rewards to each will be less than could be attained if they acted cooperatively, and this is borne out in a number of empirical experiments. However, if players of the game are allowed to communicate, or if they "learn" by playing the game multiple times, they will begin to cooperate, thereby overcoming their original, limiting self-interest.
Findings from the theoretical and empirical research suggest that the model of human behavior or rationality originally posited by Hardin may be too rigid and limiting, at least in certain contexts. The purely "economic" rationality described by Hardin does not account for more altruistic human tendencies that can lead to constraints on individual behavior in favor of the greater interests of society, nor does it recognize the possibility of "enlightened self-interest" as individuals restrain their short-term actions to achieve longer-term outcomes that are in their own interest, as well as those of society at large. However, this body of research suggests that informal norms may not always be sufficient to manage common property resources and that this may be especially true at scales that transcend local issues and communities. Thus, it has been concluded that:
Participants or external authorities must deliberately devise ... rules that limit who can use a [common property resource], specify how much and when that use will be allowed, create and finance formal monitoring arrangements, and establish sanctions for nonconformance. (Ostrom et al. 1999)
Given the hopefulness of potential solutions—both informal and formal—to the problems of managing common property resources, it has been suggested that the tragedy of the commons is shifting to the "drama of the commons" as researchers and managers try to identify and create the conditions that lead to more sustainable use and management of common property resources (Deitz 2005; National Research Council 2002).
From Commons to Carrying Capacity
The tragedy of the commons is based on an assumption, either explicit or implicit, that there are environmental limits to population and related economic growth. More specifically, concern over the tragedy of the commons is based on the assumption that increasing exploitation of resources will lead to unacceptable environmental (and related social) degradation and ultimately undermine the ability of the natural environment to support life, or at least some minimum quality of life. In technical (and increasingly popular) terminology, this assumption is addressed under the rubric of carrying capacity, and the concept of carrying capacity has become one of the most important and long standing ideas in environmental management.
Most discussions of carrying capacity date its "modern" emergence to an essay published by Thomas Malthus in 1798 titled An Essay on the Principle of Population (Malthus  2003). This essay hypothesized that human population tends to grow in an exponential fashion, but that food production is limited to arithmetic growth, as illustrated in figure 1.1. In this way, the supply of food presents an ultimate limit to population growth, and if these limits are not respected, the result will be (in the words of Malthus) substantial human "vice and misery" and related "positive checks." Malthus's ideas about limits to population and economic growth have become foundational concepts of the contemporary environmental movement. Popular books such as The Population Bomb (Ehrlich 1968), The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), and How Many People Can the Earth Support? (Cohen 1995) are important manifestations of this idea. Indeed, Hardin (1968) references Malthus in his original explication of the tragedy of the commons. Based on this lineage, contemporary environmentalists are sometimes referred to as "neo-Malthusians."
Excerpted from Parks and Carrying Capacity by Robert E. Manning. Copyright © 2007 Robert E. Manning. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
From Commons to Carrying Capacity 5
The Tragedy of the Commons 7
Carrying Capacity of Parks and Protected Areas 18
Indicators and Standards 28
Research to Support Application of Carrying Capacity 35
Identifying Indicators for Parks and Protected Areas 37
Normative Standards for Indicator Variables 42
Visual Research Methods 56
Tradeoffs in Park and Outdoor Recreation Management 77
Computer Simulation Modeling of Visitor Use 90
Case Studies of Measuring and Managing Carrying Capacity 99
Managing Recreation at Acadia National Park 101
Day-Use Social Carrying Capacity of Yosemite Valley 110
Wilderness Camping at Isle Royale National Park 125
Indicators and Standards at Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area 136
Estimating Carrying Capacity of Alcatraz Island 146
Defining and Managing the Quality of the Visitor Experience at Muir Woods National Monument 155
Wilderness Management at Zion National Park 167
Indicators and Standards for Cultural Resources at Mesa Verde National Park 181
ManagingCarrying Capacity 193
Alternative Management Practices 195
Evaluating the Effectiveness of Management Practices 203
Beyond Parks and Protected Areas 229
Indicators and Standards of Sustainability 231
Indicators for Parks and Protected Areas 253
Standards for Parks and Protected Areas 261