The tragedy of misunderstanding the commons
Understanding how we can regulate common resources is the key challenge to dealing with our environmental crisis, but we often fail to understand how to do so.
The Bagmati flowing through Kathmandu is deeply polluted. [Image: taylorandayumi]
On a short trip to Kathmandu, as the taxi made its way to the hotel, I was unpleasantly surprised by a foul odour. Looking out the open window I saw the Bagmati, the river that is Kathmandu’s lifeline, full of garbage and stinking. When I posted on Twitter about why we allowed our rivers to be so badly treated, a person responded with “the tragedy of the commons”.
For most people familiar with economics, or even beyond it, this theory is well-known. The term was popularised by Garrett Hardin in 1968 to explain why common resources – particularly pastureland – are prone to overuse by individuals unless there is governmental control or private ownership. It has been used to explain everything from why public toilets are dirty, overfishing and fish collapse in the ocean, to the tragedy of climate change.
There is a strong and instinctual logic to the argument, one we can all understand, possibly explaining its very strong appeal. We all understand that when responsibility is not fixed, things run afoul.
Whether it is sharing a common fridge in an office, or cleaning up after ourselves in a school, college, or university setting, we have all been witness to how divided responsibilities can lead to big, stinking messes. If it is true for students, why should it not be true for the world?
And yet Hardin was profoundly wrong, both in the examples and data he used to make his arguments, to the argument itself. Elinor Ostrom would become the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for proving Hardin wrong. What Ostrom showed was that there were multiple ways of managing common resources without conflict and overexploitation, and – in fact – unless there were external factors undermining the traditional and established practices of commons management, they were already better managed without a recourse to private property rights or top-down governmental control. We see this in real life as multiple reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show the scientific consensus that biodiversity and land are better managed by indigenous communities.
How Ostrom proved her point is possible even more important than what her point was. Lee Ann Fennell has coined what she calls “Ostrom’s Law”: A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory. What makes Ostrom stand out, Fennel argues, is her attention to detail, to learning from what was actually working on the ground, and drawing theories out of that. What this meant is that Ostrom did not propose a universal theory in the way that Hardin. When she studied practices that were working in Turkey she was aware of the specific cultural, political and economic context in which that practice worked. It could not simply be extracted and applied globally.
This kind of grand theory into practice is what defined British colonial practices of profitability in Nepal and India, as we discussed in a previous issue dealing with the works of Prakash Kashwan, Amitav Ghosh, and Dane Huckelbridge, and how environmentally destructive they were. The most important aspect of their work is that they identified that land management practices built up over time – as with the Tharu and Nepali kings – emerged out an understanding of the carrying capacity of ecological spaces. A purely extractive, top-down, form of governance destroyed that balance, leaving both the ecology and humans far more vulnerable, even if a small fraction became far more rich in monetary terms.
Ostrom’s Law has enormous implications for managing the environment of India. Why is it that we have such polluted rivers? Why, after so much investment, so much political capital, are they still filthy? Why is it that, despite repeated disasters and little economic sense, we continue to try to manage rivers through dams and embankments?
Maybe the very quick answer to that is that we are not really listening to the people that live by the rivers.
We do not see local communities as anything other victims. We have no formats through which traditional methods of resource management can become part of government policy.
This is why it is such a pleasure to feature an interview with Siddharth Agarwal, who has been walking along India’s rivers, and helping others to do so, documenting what the rivers are to the people that live alongside. In this he is doing what Ostrom taught us to do: listening.
Siddharth Agarwal is a photographer and filmmaker. He studied aerospace engineering at IIT Kharagpur before becoming involved in documenting issues of India’s rivers. He is the founder of Veditum India Foundation, a non-profit research & media organisation, working in the fields of environment, culture and society.
Q. What are you doing? What is Veditum?
For the past few years I have been walking across India, mostly along rivers (Ganga, Ken, Mahakali), trying to document and bring stories of marginalized communities and the environment into the mainstream. As part of this work, I've recently directed and produced a documentary - Moving Upstream: Ganga - filmed on my walk along the River Ganga from Ganga Sagar, West Bengal to Gangotri, Uttarakhand. The film explores the river's human, ecological, political and spiritual stories - seen from the perspective of riparian communities. You can watch the film's trailer here: Moving Upstream: Ganga trailer
This documentary has been produced under the Moving Upstream project hosted by Veditum India Foundation. Founded by me, Veditum is a not-for_profit research and media organisation where we're working towards environmental research, documentation and accountability initiatives. Our current work is centred on Indian rivers, and life in and around these rivers, with an aim to create publicly accessible records - ecological, anthropogenic, hydrological, social and even more contextual layers - of these spaces and of people's stories.
An important part of our work has been the Moving Upstream fellowship program that we co-host with the Out of Eden Walk. As part of this fellowship program, over the past 3 years, 14 fellows have walked over 1,000 kms along River Betwa and River Sindh. The fellows interacted with communities and the riverscape, creating their own documentation and then telling these stories in forms that are their strengths. We have stories in the forms of articles, photo stories, soundscapes, scientific records, zines, posters, thesis reports and more. We continue to make efforts towards broadening our perspective, and the fellowship helps us do just that, as we continue to grow.
One of the zines produced from the Betwa walks
Q. How does this help us? Or the people along the rivers?
Our relationship with nature in modern society has become one of indifference paired with ignorant exploitation. Lost somewhere in this speed at which we are throwing ourselves into an increasingly bleak future, is reality. An antidote to this could be simply slowing down, and walking does precisely that. Slowing down or walking is obviously not a new discovery, but its mindful practice is where the emphasis lies.
In the case of the Ganga for example, most people visiting Haridwar to bathe in the "Holy Ganga" at Har ki Pauri do not think about the fact that they're bathing in a canal and not the river itself. How can we make this visible? How can this connection be made? Through the kind of practice we undertake at Veditum, we hope to shine a light on and reignite our lost connections with the natural world.
These connections are our key to a future where mindfulness and empathy drive our decision making, where a river drying up or a riverside village getting unjustly submerged behind a dam is not an acceptable sacrifice for the material comforts of society.
Q. What are some things that stay with you from the walks along the rivers?
Of the many things that one carries with them from such a practice, the unfettered generosity of people sits right at the top. Irrespective of people's economic or social conditions, with a few exceptions, they have been generous beyond measure. This goodness of people however exists with a contrast of acute and unfortunately growing hatred - especially on religious grounds. My large beard has often made me a target of this hatred, with suspicions of a 'Muslim terrorist' running free and far.
As a society, we continue to exploit the powerless through these same social fractures, finally using these to inflict violence on nature. Social and environmental injustice are extremely prevalent. It is often the case that the weak social security that our fellow citizens inherit is what allows environmental injustice to exist. Modern news cycles that rely on 'breaking news' and sensationalism, often do not find a space for these stories. In the odd cases that people do step out to report, they're mostly chained to the tyranny of the road - which are far and few in many of these sites of injustice.
Walking continues to be a blessing in breaking away from this tyranny of the road, in accessing landscapes and stories which seem to be off radar for even basic developmental activities, but most of all it allows for a break from the speed of modern society.
The river is a wonderful companion, as one takes the time to introspect.
Q. How did you get involved in this?
My introduction to issues of the environment and people started with a desire to slow down, to meet fellow citizens and our landscape. I wanted to understand the country and its challenges better before deciding on the next steps in my life. Learning has now become a major part of my life, coupled with solution building / problem solving based on what we learn as we slowly move through landscapes.
An illustration of life by the river by Kabini Amin
What has definitely become evident is that one doesn't have to go too far to encounter issues of the environment and people. We're literally swimming in a sea of injustice. Involvement now seems more a matter of choice, than of place.
Q. What is the major issue that should be spoken about, but is largely missing in our discussions?
Ganga, the word, means 'that which flows', and is a word often used to describe rivers everywhere. This very tenet that forms the idea of a river is unfortunately missing, both physically as well as in discussions. As far as rivers are concerned, our common idea of what makes a river - a flowing body of water, is itself an endangered idea.
But if we move one step away, we see that the river is made up of all that exists in its watershed. This includes all the pristine forests, degraded lands, sanctuaries, polluting urban centres, extraction of water, tributaries, humans, animals, plants, as well as all forms of justice and injustice.
Our discussions need to become more inclusive and expansive, and need to stop missing the water for a river.
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