Ben: Okay, ready?

Liz: Rock,

Unknown: paper,

Liz: scissors. Oh, paper covers rock. I'm Liz Landau.

Ben: And I'm Ben Klemens.

Liz: And this is

Both: Pod, Paper, Scissors.

[Intro music: You've gotta make decisions...]

Liz: Hey Ben. Did you have a good Earth Day?

Ben: I did, I did. I mostly stayed home.

Liz: Me too. You know, what I do on Earth Day is I think about how beautiful our planet is. It's the only planet we know where humans can survive. And yet, time and time again, human activity damages the planet.

Ben: Yeah, it's been nice to see during this little time of quarantine, fewer people driving.

Liz: Yeah, you know, when we're all just going about our daily activities under normal circumstances, we're all just emitting fossil fuels all the time engaging in activities that are destructive to the environment. It's a tragedy of the commons.

Ben: Ah, that term again.

Liz: I recently learned that even though a lot of people might have heard of tragedy of the commons, as this problem of people destroying shared resources, actually, its origins are a little bit more nefarious.

Ben: Indeed. Wait, can we put in some sting music right here? Maybe I can unplug something from my laptop.

[Windows's "unplugging something from your laptop" noise, a nefarious sequence of tones.]

Unknown: Nefarious.

Ben: Yeah, the story, as it's usually told is that the commons in question are common land for grazing in England, until the 1700s.


Liz: So throughout the Middle Ages, farmers would take their cows to graze.

Ben: Indeed, and sometimes this would be dedicated common space, sometimes it would be lands that it's—you've harvested, harvested the wheat, and now it's just lying fallow, so why not just let the cows graze there. Whatever space was available. And this was, this was the state of things in England for a frickin' millennium, until the mid 1700s, when there was an enclosure movement.

Liz: Wait, so they closed off these common spaces?

Ben: Yeah, so this happened, there were enclosures for for centuries and centuries. Beginning in 1775, there were laws passed by Parliament to make it easier for people to close these things off. And by people, I mean the Lords, the people with more money or more resources or more access to the government, who could either buy or coerce the commons from the people who used to those common spaces, which we could call...the commoners.

Liz: So to recap, the problem, the tragedy here is that all of these farmers are bringing all of their cattle, and then there isn't a lot of land. All of these farmers are bringing more and more cattle, and they are over grazing these lands. And the solution was to just make those lands private.

Ben: Yeah, and this is how I learned it in my econ class. And maybe some of our listeners, they learned it in their econ class this way, too. There was—the first discussion of this was a couple sentences in an essay by William Foster Lloyd in 1833. And he, he was ambivalent about it. He had the anecdote that I learned in my econ class, where they said, if—he gave the example of a common account, where you take out a guinea and you, you've lost, I don't know, like, kind of half a guinea because you're sharing that account with somebody else. Versus if you have a private account, you take out a guinea, well, that's your your guinea, you felt it. And so he compares this to the commons, where you could overgraze easily because each person adds a bit of damage to the space, but nobody totally feels it, versus private land where there's one party that feels everything.


Liz: Yeah, it's like when your roommates bake bread, and everybody in the house, get some bread, but one person might take more slices of bread than another.

Ben: These things definitely happen. And I can, I can attest to these sorts of stories. But also, they maintained this for a frickin' millennium. This was the normal course of business, and in fact, William Foster Lloyd he was a little ambivalent about it too. He was writing in 1833. So there was a lot of enclosure by that time, and the norm sort of shifted from generally open to sort of normally more closed. In the essay, he talks about this question of raising kids. And we'll get, we'll talk a lot more about that in a minute.

Liz: Wait, so we've gone from too many cows to too many children.

Ben: Indeed. They're everywhere, Liz.

Liz: They're everywhere.

Ben They're everywhere.

Liz: So the overpopulation problem becomes a tragedy of the commons, in his view.

Ben: Yeah. And this is what he was really writing about. He was concerned that basically, the supply of food is finite, and the possibility of growth of population is infinite. Liz, you're familiar with the Malthusians.

Liz: Yeah. Oh, great. So Mr. Malthus. John?


Ben: Back then, everyone that then was named John.

Liz: actually, it's Thomas Malthus. So he said, that population grows geometrically, that means exponentially in our terms, but food grows linearly. In other words, the growth of food production cannot keep up with the growth of the population, and therefore we have a problem.

Ben: Yeah, so Malthus was writing in the late 1700s, when the population of England was about 8 million. Lloyd was writing in 1831, the population was around 12 million. So yeah, they were very concerned about whether England could maintain that many people. So the last census, of course, it was more than 12 million, it was up to 56 million, and they eat every day. One of the problems that he talked about the commons was actually that it wasn't too painful to raise kids in a community. So Lloyd's concern was, how do we make sure that people feel the effects of having their frickin' children? And one of the problems with the, with the commons was that they didn't really feel that. So there's the difficulties of raising children. "And in a community of goods where the children are", I'm reading Lloyd here, "in a community of goods where the children are maintained at public tables and where each family takes according to its necessities out of the common stock, these difficulties are removed from the individual." And then next thing you know, everybody's breeding like crazy. So that was William Foster Lloyd, he, he had a couple of sentences about this tragedy of the commons, where the commons were over grazed and private land was not over grazed. But the rest of the essay was about how do we get people to have fewer kids.


Liz: More than a century later, a man named Garrett Hardin would pick up Lloyd's essay and write about it in just a couple of paragraphs in a very influential essay called

Both: "The tragedy of the commons".

Liz: And so this 1968 article in the journal Science, one of the most prestigious journals in the world, which has gotten more than 35,000 citations on this single article, it really introduced this term tragedy of the commons. It talked about the commons not only in terms of cattle grazing, in terms of more modern societal problems, like parking availability, and pollution. He then moves on to just like Lloyd talk about overpopulation, but concludes that in order to solve the problem of overpopulation, you need some form of coercion, that there should be some, essentially government forceful solution.

Ben: So this is [Windows rising tone] eugenics [Windows nefarious tones].

Liz: Yes. And, of course, eugenics did not start with Garrett Hardin who happened to be a believer in eugenics. The term eugenics actually comes from Francis Galton who was writing in the 1880s and was a cousin of Charles Darwin

Ben: Darwin.

Liz: This is so crazy, not only because eugenics is wrong, but because this cousin of Darwin clearly did not understand the message of His cousin.


Ben: I guess common sense doesn't run in the family Hmm.

Liz: So Darwin with his theory of evolution and natural selection, he really pushed the idea that the thing that makes species survive and thrive for generations and generations, is not selecting the best genes. It's having variation. It's all of the mutations, all of the beautiful variation that one could see in the individual members of a species, like that is what allows the species to survive and thrive and propagate and be successful. So actually, eugenics entirely goes against the idea of natural selection. Shame on you, Francis.

Ben: So can I tell you my association with Francis Galton, he ran the first regression, and in fact that he came up with that term, too.

Liz: Oh, he came up with the term regression, that's a way of looking at how one variable relates to another.

Ben: Yeah. And the variables he was interested in was father's height and, and child's height.

Liz: Oh, I think, you know, even today, I feel like people might assume that a father's height would be somehow correlated with the son's height,

Ben: There's correlation. But generally, if the father is way at the top of the, top of the curve, the height curve—

Liz: as in unusually tall—

Ben: then the son is not going to be—might be tall, but will be closer to the mean. And if the father is shorter, on the shorter end, the son is going to be a little taller, which is kind of common sense. But he took the time to measure it and verify it, and thus verify that, indeed, nature kind of brings us back to the mean either way.


Liz: So bringing it back to Hardin, the actual essay that's cited 35,000 times, it never actually says, let's kill or sterilize people with, quote, inferior, end quote, genes. That came much earlier. In fact, tens of thousands of people in the US were sterilized. However, that was prior to Hardin.

Ben: Did Hardin have any opinions about who should be sterilized who should be when he talks about this overpopulation problem? And the commons are our gene pool?

Liz: Yeah.

Ben: Did he have opinions about how to keep that gene pool, keep those commons clean, and less overgrazed?

Liz: Well, not in this particular essay, he just ends it with this idea of coercion, just like we are coerced to pay taxes, and those taxes go towards the functioning of our government and the bettering of our communities, there should be some form of coercion to limit overpopulation. Now, let's consider that China had a one child rule for a long time. And the consequences of that were terrible. You know, you had families like hiding children, killing children. This is really not the world we want to live in. In this essay, Hardin also is quite suspect of the United Nations, which has a declaration saying that the right to breed belongs with the family. And Hardin is all like, oh, like why do we always like unconditionally trust the UN? Like who is the UN anyway, to tell us what to do?


Ben: Can I cut in with another statistician anecdote? I've got, I've got a million of them. So another, another. well regarded statistician Ronald Aylmer Fisher, in your distant memory, you can remember from your stats class, the F test.

Liz: Oh, is that the test that boys gave me at bars when they wanted to take me out?

Ben: No, it was more about the ratio of two Chi squared distributions. He was also really pissed off about the UN. He was also very much a eugenicist and what we would now call just a straight-out racist. There was a clause in the UN Declaration of Human Rights saying that effectively all men are created equal. And he took the time to write an angry letter to the UN protesting this, this section. [Fact check for you transcript readers: It was a report entitled "Nature of Race and Racial Differences", not the Declaration of Human Rights.]

Liz: So what I'm taking away from this conversation, is that there are a bunch of men throughout history who have made really substantive contributions to our body of knowledge and the way that we do science and statistical analysis? And they were also Eugenicist, racist, assholes.

Ben: Yeah, kind of jerks. And yeah, eugenics has now been rebranded into genetics and, you know, some parts of biology. But yeah, that's, that's kind of the roots of it. Oh, where did we start off, with the tragedy of the commons, that's where that's where this all started off. And in both cases here, there's kind of a similar resolution. Hardin's proposal for resolving the tragedy of the commons, in his case, the gene pool,—

Liz: Yeah.

Ben: —was to decide that there should be certain parties who decide who gets to breed and who doesn't. And by the way, those people should look a lot like, like, like Garret Hardin. And if we go back to the enclosure movement, there was, you know, perhaps there were commons that were mismanaged, I'm confident that there were many. And the resolution in that case was that a Lord would come in and say, "I have a resolution to the problem with the commoners. I'm just going to take all the land, and then that will resolve everything." Our goal here and in life generally, is to find the resolution to these sorts of environmental Prisoner's Dilemmas that don't just involve somebody walking in, hitting everyone else over the head with a stick and saying, alright, I'm taking ownership of all of this. And then that resolves all of our Prisoner's Dilemmas.


Liz: It's very unfortunate that the term tragedy of the commons shares its roots with the thinking about overpopulation, and how the government could step in and use racist and other prejudicial means of selecting who can breed and who can not. Obviously, we've had a history of terrible things that have happened with that philosophy, including the Holocaust, including the sterilizations of tens of thousands of Americans, based on things like mental disability, poverty, race, the list goes on. Ultimately, when one group of people decides that they are superior than another, in terms of genes, really terrible things happen. But none of this precludes the fact that still we all have to share the same air, we all have to share the same environment and ecosystems. And we have to find a way to responsibly coexist in this world.

Ben: How about next time we talk about carbon taxes?


Liz: Yeah. So again, while Hardin is not a morally good example of how to be, he did suggest that taxes are one way to solve tragedy of the commons problems, because a person's individual conscience is not going to fully drive him or her to stop polluting or stop eating animals or stop engaging in fossil fuel emissions. A tax is a way that a government can offer a top down solution to shape these tragedy of the commons problems like a carbon tax. That's what we'll talk about next time.

Ben: It's a very creative setup for a tax because it's partially about ownership, and it's partially about closing off the commons, but then at the same time, it's partially about make making sure that everybody has has equal access, and we don't just hand all the chips to one party and say, Alright, it's your problem now. So tune in next time, and we'll cover that topic on...

Both: Pod, Paper, Scissors.

[Outro music]