The Tragedy of the Commons: Ghana in Context

Recent research from the University of Illinois bears out that community management doesn't lead to a tragedy of the commons...

Recent research from the University of Illinois bears out that community management doesn’t lead to a tragedy of the commons…

…The Environment: Sustainable Development, The Impacts of Finite Space and Growing Population


By the early twenty-first century, environmental issues had been high on the international agenda for a whole generation of political leaders, government officials, scientist, industrialists, and concerned citizens. The tendency of mankind to exploit the environment as if it were an inexhaustible resource, in the words of Owen Greene, has repeatedly led to disaster, sometimes leading to the loss of entire human communities. Thus, communities could often escape the consequences of such activities by moving on to relatively unspoilt areas. Even if they could not, the local impoverishment did not necessarily affect the continued well-being of neighbouring societies. Severe ecological damage and unsustainable exploitation occurred over whole regions of the world. For example, by the late twentieth century, the impacts, as Greene puts it, had become truly global.


Most pundits cite 1970s, specifically, 1972, as a year of global environmental consciousness. Indeed most conservationists trace this as far back to the 1960s. Thus prior to 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, it was realised that there were undoubtedly abundance natural resources to sustain mankind but mankind has been, true, ingenious in dealing with environmental problems due to technology to make massive profit. Thanks in part to academic attacks on this selfishness- here, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which highlighted the health dangers of DDT and other pesticides, not forgetting the awakened school of thought which exposed that kill-me-softly, concerns about pollution from firms to government departments. As the result of these teeming academic revelations, individuals and government departments begun to be conscious about the prudence in environmental problems such as: frontier economics that continue to destroy the forest, land surface, sea and oceans. Here, the dangers of radioactive fallout, atomic bomb testing in the air or on the high seas, attracted international censure and as a consequence, led to its ban.


The 1972 Stockholm Conference deserves to be regarded as a landmark victory because it is argued that it was the first attempt to organise co-ordinated response to growing worldwide environmental concern, establishing principles, practices and institution that formed the basis of universal environmental politics for the past three decades. The blue-prints of the conference, among others, included concern over institutionalisation of international environment issues. That states have responsibility to co-operate to manage global commons and reduce international pollution. For example, Principle 21 argued that though state- parties had sovereignty over their own natural resources, they had a responsibility to ensure that their activities did not damage the environment of other states. In this context, global commons was defined as the Common Heritage of Mankind, such as the deep-sea bed, was to be collectively managed and preserved for the benefit of all. Thus, measures to prevent pollution and protect the natural environment were to be balanced against economic and social gains.

It worth noting that at that conference, developing countries argued that they had less responsibility for global pollution and resource depletion than the developed world, and as such, attempts to protect the environment had to be linked to efforts to promote economic and social development in the developing world. Hence, the creation of the UN Environmental Programme, tasked with the co-ordination of environmental-related activities of other UN agencies. But the idea that developing nations pollute less is becoming weak these days, at least, if we consider production methods in India and China, not overlooking our homeland. Our overwhelming reliance on used cars and electronic gadgets that have been marked “toxic” and ecologically hazardous in the West, dominate our markets. Something “hard-nosed” US negotiators validly raised at the Kyoto Agreement on the Green House Emissions Freedoms.

Thus, US argued that she is developed and has the requisite internal environmental regimes that meet international regulatory standards that most evolving industrial nations are missing. So, subjecting it to ridicule on grounds of legal theory of state equality in international affairs is fishy. Having said, it must be summarized that most issues raised at Stockholm were largely ignored until the establishment of UN World Commission on Environment and Development, which, in 1987, issued the Brundtland Report that was arguably, heavily influenced by Garret Hardin’s article: The Tragedy of The commons that raised the impacts of population growth.

The Tragedy Of the Commons

At the end of a thoughtful article on the future of nuclear war, Wiesner and York, per Garrett Hardin’s article: The Tragedy of the Commons, concluded that both sides in the arms race are confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasingly military power and steadily decreasing national security. It was, therefore, their considered professional judgement that this dilemma, as Wiesner and York put it, has no technical solution if the great powers- US/Soviets, continue to look for solution in the area of science and technology only as this will worsen the situation. Hardin focuses our attention not only on the subject of that article- national security, but also on the kind of conclusion Wiesner and York reached, here, that there is no technical solution to the problem. In defining a technical solution, he submits that this may be one requiring a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change of human values or ideas of morality… In our day, though not in earlier times, Hardin says, technical solutions are always welcome because of previous failure in prophecy.

This is an illustrative article ignited by the tragedy that occurred on once a sparsely populated vast wilderness with a few hand-to-mouth herdsmen who had no property rights over this open-to-all grazing field. Apart from some sporadic tribal rifts, poaching and disease that in the words of Hardin, keep the numbers of man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land, there was enough pasture open to them until when what Hardin describes as the day of reckoning came. Thus the day that they begin to grow in yachts and barns and the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy, in that as rational beings, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain: explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, Garret Hardin writes.

Hardin, at the time of writing this piece in reflection of population growth and global commons, was a professor of biology, University of California, Santa Barbara, in the United States. This was in December 1968, a time that most of us, perhaps, might have not been born, older or probably, toddling with our black writing-slates in our armpits with some roasted plantain, cocoyam, agbelikrakro or say, some wrapped pies in our Schulranzen. Whatever our destinies were, it remains perhaps, persuasive, that we had absolutely, no part in influencing creation or evolution, whatever our beliefs are. Thus, we were weak non-existence fetus to alter, dictate or vary which parents, ethnicity, community, nation or planet that we must be born into. However, one simple fact proves that there is no prosperous population in the world today that has, and has had for sometime, a growth rate of zero. Any people (or individuals) that have intuitively identified its optimum point, to borrow the word of Hardin, will soon reach it. We have either consolidated our family wealth or broken its wretchedness

Thus, today, we are conquerors, through personal risk-taking or (mis)fortunes of others. Yes, the rational choice theory holds that individual decision makers determine, via their interaction, social outcome. And that their decisions are rational in the sense of seeking to maximize complete and transitive preference ordering over outcomes which, in the words of Gary S. Becker: “The Economic Way of Looking at Life,” can be selfish, altruistic, loyal, spiteful, or masochistic. But must this inspire us to treat Ghana and its human and natural resources as commons- owned by no one, so it must be exploited with impunity? “It is our considered professional judgement…” writes Wiesner and York, but whether they were right or not, according to Hardin, is not the concern of this present article.

Rather, the concern here is with the important concept of a class of human problems which can be called “no technical solution problems,” which in our present discourse, is population growth and its related mass youth unemployment, that threaten the last legacy of our homeland. Today, money rules and the respect that was hitherto accorded to both the ageing rich and poor are in the same measure, as our ecology, steadily eroding. It may be fair to conceive both the young and old, as those engaged in what Hardin describes as tick-tack-toe. “How can I win tick-tack-toe game”, Hardin asks. It is well known that I cannot, if I assume (in keeping with the conventions of game theory) that my opponent understands the game perfectly or giving a radical meaning to the game: hit my opponent over the shoulder, drug him/her; falsify the records. Thus, we can use every way in which, in the words of Hardin, “I win” involves or abandon it completely- the class of no technical solution has indeed a huge disciples like many of us who passionately, assume that nature will surely take care of itself.”

The principle that common spaces are open for use by all nations, according to Birnie and Boyle, entails an obligation not to abuse this right or interfere unreasonably with the freedoms of others. Art 2 of the 1958 High Seas Convention requires states to act with reasonableness for the interests of others. The same is reiterated in the 1982 United Nations Conference on Seas (UNCLOS). The later Convention also provides that states shall fulfil in good faith the obligation assumed under this Convention, and shall exercise the rights, jurisdictions, and freedoms recognized in this Convention in a manner which would not constitute an abuse of right (Article 300). It must be illustrated, here, that environmental disturbances causing climate change in Ouagadougou, where the Volta River has its tributaries, as recent events show, can have, for example, serious political and socio-economic impact on Ghana because of our global interconnectiveness.

It is upon this rock that Bruundtland Report defined sustainable development as development that met the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Indeed this is also contested in some academic cults, reasoning that it is only when we are comfortably fed and cared for that we might sound environmentally friendly. We might be doubtful of this in that our ancestors, though not technologically exuberant in their generation, had through “positive myths”, conservation awareness which served them well. Today, everything of the old is misconstrued as weak and archaic and has come under sharp pick-axe and shovel, if not caterpillars and chain-saws of the modern man.

An unfortunately development which, in some parts of our world, even doctors and nurses, who are trained to save life and respect the privacy of their patients, mischievously, inject them to death because of their old age and “physical disabilities”. Other private individuals do this on grounds of speeding up succession claims. Nowadays, some chief executives and personnel managers are at cross-roads and unpredictable when it comes to ageing syndrome. This is applicable not only to potential employees but also existing members of staff. As a young woman, she had been lucky having had her dream-job at 30 without unproven track-record under her bra and not being “high-heeling cat”, mini-skirt or strait-dressing devotee. The “son of man”, what do we have to show to patriarchal world to have our feet at the door?

“The tragedy of the commons,” using the word “tragedy as the philosopher Whitehead used it, in the words Hardin, is in the essence of dramatic tragedy not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” Thus this inevitableness of destiny, according to Hardin, can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama. With our growing population coupled with an improved traditional and orthodox medicine that reassure the old healthier and vibrant, it can be expected, as it appears now, evoke contra forces on our finite Ghana and its environment. So, how do we take over the generational baton- with the left or right hand? Must the old be despised for keeping us too long on track or in lane while our competitors race far ahead of us? Are we receiving it with cheers or scorn? These are some of the crucial questions that have no technical solutions.

Indeed, when Fordjour stares at that “all-hands-on-deck” footage of Flt J. J. Rawlings of 1979 and 1981, with the railway workers, and splash through the Puritan Thesis of Professor Adu Boahene, then the future trembles under his feet, and with tears and discipleship, seeks refuge under the alter of Shakespeare- the world is indeed a stage on which we all, are just actors.

Asante Fordjour Student Department of Law, Governance and International Relations London Metropolitan University London UK, first authored this article for Ghanaweb.

Credit JusticeGhana

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