Topic 10 Environment and the Commons

In this next Topic we discuss the environment and the issues it presents for an economic system. This is not a science course, it’s a social science course. So I’m not so interested here in questions such as how badly polluted the environment is or how much/how fast global climate change is happening. For our purposes here, it is sufficient that we just know pollution or a wrecked environment is indeed possible from economic activity. Our concern here is: in what ways does the economic system contribute to or hinder the maintenance of a healthy environment for humans?

So I will not spend your time with trying to raise your awareness of environmental issues. There is plenty of information available about environmental issues. We may disagree about specific issues such as global warming, the availability of natural resources such as oil or coal, or the specifics of any particular environmental issue.  But what is well established is that the production methods of the 20th century need to change. The technologies and processes that produced the high standards of living for the fortunate 10-15% of the world’s population in the first world industrialized nations cannot and will not produce the same living standards for the entire world. There simply aren’t enough resources. We must make a change to more sustainable methods of production, be it energy production, agriculture, industry or waste disposal.

At it’s core, the environmental issues about sustainability are economic system issues. The economic system and its’ institutions determine what costs are considered when deciding how and what to produce. The economic system determines what the “externalities” are that should be ignored or remedied by government regulation. How, when and whether we move to sustainable production or “green” energy will ultimately be determined by how we change our economic system.

A major issue that is always brought up when environment and the economic system is discussed is the commons. The commons is the term used by economists to describe things or property that are not exclusively private property but may be used by all or many.  The historical example of a commons in the literature (and a source of much poor generalizations about commons) is that of English villages before the 18th century. Villages back then tended to have a pasture that was shared in common by all. In other words, all farmers could graze their animals there since no one farmer controlled it. The question arose as to whether farmers would attempt to graze too many sheep and thus over-graze the commons, ruining it for all. The issue of the commons is whether this lack of private property combined with self-interested behavior by individuals leads to over-use and non-sustainability or not.  As you’ll see in the first reading, the popular conception of the commons as being unsustainable is not really in line with empirical evidence.

The other two readings have to do with whether the goals of growth in an economy conflict with environmental sustainability and how.

After the readings, I’ve embedded a video below about sustainable fish farming that offers another perspective and raises questions of how we organize our food supply.

As usual, please read and watch. We are interested in your thoughts and reactions to these readings/video. You may participate by blogging on your own blog (remember to categorize it as ECON 260), creating a new post on the front page of this site, or reply/comment here.

Topic 10 – Environment & the Commons

Video to Watch:
TED Talk: Dan Barber – How I Fell in Love With A Fish

What It Is About

Chef Dan Barber squares off with a dilemma facing many chefs today: how to keep fish on the menu. With impeccable research and deadpan humor, he chronicles his pursuit of a sustainable fish he could love, and the foodie’s honeymoon he’s enjoyed since discovering an outrageously delicious fish raised using a revolutionary farming method in Spain.

I am not an ecologist or biologist. Dan Barber may or may not be correct in his assessment of sustainability of the particular farm he talks about. But that is not the point here. The point I want you to pay attention to is how Barber describes a different approach to agriculture. Think about that. Think about how we do current agriculture (if you’re not really aware of current agriculture practices you may want to watch Food Inc.). How will these changes affect our economic systems? Will our economic systems produce sustainable production?

How I Fell In Love With A Fish (alt link if embedded video doesn’t display)