The Tragedy of the Commons and North Pole Air Pollution


North Pole, Alaska – a community about 15 miles southeast of Fairbanks – has had the worst air quality in the United States the last few days. The dangerous very fine particulates, 2.5 nanometers and smaller, are at Unhealthy levels. Yet in the last municipal election, North Pole voted overwhelmingly to block the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s very modest efforts to regulate air quality.

It’s tempting to write off the horrible air quality as the consequence of bad karma, or as really malodorous chickens coming home to roost. But the situation also serves as a case study in the socioeconomic principles collectively known as the Tragedy of the Commons.

The tragedy of the commons is where social psychology meets economics. In economic terms, it occurs when  a shared resource is depleted by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to their long-term best interests. In social psychology terms, it’s been described occurring when people’s short-term selfish interests are at odds with long-term group interests and the common good. It may be a somewhat overwrought metaphor, but it is accurate.

In North Pole, the common resource is the very air the citizens breath. You might think it would be obvious that you don’t want to seriously pollute the air you have to breathe. But the pollution is driven by those same citizens burning wood – often unseasoned wood – and coal to save money on heat. Heating oil, a more efficient and much less polluting energy source, has gotten expensive. An individual’s self-interest in saving money leads them to burn wet wood and coal. Exposure to the resulting fine particulates is very unhealthy and leads to all kinds of health problems. For smokers, for persons with lung disease or heart conditions, and for folks with asthma, it is life-threatening. Bad air is bad for everyone. No single, individual wood- or coal-burner is the cause of the problem; the collective actions of all wood- and coal-burners is a choking, dangerous cloud that is dangerous to everyone.

It’s just an accident of atmospherics that Fairbanks hasn’t been equally bad. But in North Pole the denial is stunning. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), which has jurisdiction in the absence of regulation by the Borough, held a community meeting. Just 20 people showed up.

And problems arising out of the tragedy of the commons are notoriously difficult to resolve. Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded 2009′s Nobel Prize of Economics for her work on the issue, with her colleagues, looked at how real-world communities manage communal resources, such as fisheries, land irrigation systems, and farmlands. They identified a number of factors conducive to successful resource management. One factor is the resource itself; resources with definable boundaries (e.g., land) can be preserved much more easily. A second factor is resource dependence; there must be a perceptible threat of resource depletion, and it must be difficult to find substitutes. The third is the presence of a community; small and stable populations with a thick social network and social norms promoting conservation do better. A final condition is that there be appropriate community-based rules and procedures in place with built-in incentives for responsible use and punishments for overuse.

The Fairbanks and North Pole air quality problem may be especially difficult to resolve because none of those factors that support resolution are present. There are no boundaries on the air. We are intensely dependent on, you know, breathable air. The population involved is not small, stable or cohesive. And there are neither community norms or punishments for violations.

In WC’s experience, that means we will have to have some fatalities, or very serious illnesses, publicly and unequivocally, to reset responsibility. Nothing less than a disaster seems to be sufficient to effect change. And that’s the tragedy.

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