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The tragedy of our commons

March 04, 2017

PICTURE a pasture open to all shepherds. Each shepherd is a rational actor, driven by the pursuit of his or her self-interest, and, to maximise profit, each considers whether he or she may add another head of cattle to the pasture. In doing so, each actor, either consciously or subconsciously, conducts a cost-benefit analysis.

The discernible benefit is that a particular shepherd is able to acquire all proceeds from any future sale of that animal. The obvious cost is that adding an animal may lead to overgrazing and, thus, diminish communal resources. The benefit accrues to the shepherd alone, whereas the cost is distributed amongst all shepherds, and therefore, the only rational, utilitarian and logical conclusion for the actor is to add another head of cattle — followed by another and another — till the eventual ruin of the pasture from overexploitation. “Therein is the tragedy,” said American ecologist Garret Hardin. “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited.”

The tragedy of the commons has often been misinterpreted as an assault on the virtues of communal ownership. In fact, it is an attack on the unregulated use of shared resources, a tale of caution, a possible failure of the free market to protect us from its externalities and rectify the misallocation of natural assets.

The ‘commons’ refer to resources that are openly accessible and shared by us all — the air, the rivers, the oceans, even publicly owned lands — and the ‘tragedy’ is in our inherent inability to appropriate these resources in a sustainable manner. There is no dearth of evidence to support this contention: rapid deforestation of our scanty woodlands, an impending water crisis, increasing flash floods, erratic weather patterns, a steady decline in agricultural output, smog in larger cities, large-scale pollution in public spaces. These are all signs of impending disaster, caused by nothing less than our reckless appetite to forage all that we can from our environment.


Evidently, the state has yet to comprehend the magnitude of our environmental concerns.


While climate change and environmental degradation is a global concern, for Pakistan, it is also an acute and existential threat. Our great misfortune is that, despite a comparatively low carbon footprint, we are one of the countries most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. After all, water scarcity, rapid desertification, increasing pollution and a burgeoning population are ill omens for a state that is still largely dependent on agriculture.

Despite the imminence of this danger, the state is still in a state of slumber. While there does exist a mechanism for environmental protection and preservation in the form of provincial and federal environmental protection agencies (EPAs), their efforts to mitigate environmental damage are piecemeal and half-hearted at best.

To cite one example, while EPAs are mandated to conduct intensive environmental impact assessments (EIAs), research published by the Asian Development Bank in 2013 highlights that in Punjab and Sindh, less than 20pc of projects that ought to be covered by EIAs are actually covered in practice. In Balochistan and KP, this figure drops to a staggering 10pc. This indicates that the vast majority of infrastructural and industrial projects currently being undertaken in the country have been initiated with a wilful disregard of their environmental cost and impact.

A similarly neglectful attitude surfaces when it comes to adequate checks on levels of pollution. The current framework primarily relies on different categories of industries to ‘self-monitor and report’ their liquid and gaseous emissions. While the system is comprehensive, it is ineffective and devoid of any enforcement vehicle. It appears that most of these industries are either reporting incorrect data or not reporting any data at all — with no consequences whatsoever.

Evidently, the state has yet to comprehend the magnitude of our environmental concerns — that, or it is deliberately blinding itself. The warning signs are glaringly visible. In fact, Pakistan is now annually bombarded with reports that it is plunging beneath the water-scarcity benchmark, that its glacial waters are receding at an alarming pace, that its population is expanding beyond its means and that it stands at the precipice of future water wars. Still, while the world is busy writing our obituary, our state appears content with its cavalier attitude.

It is patently clear that our environmental policy needs to be reformulated, both at home and abroad. Domestically, our ad hoc approach to this critical issue must be replaced by a tangible and holistic national policy, one that appreciates that environmental conservation is a multifaceted issue that requires foresight, technical expertise and a close collaboration between the private and the public sector.

Firstly, underfunded and understaffed regulatory authorities such as the EPAs must be reinvigorated and equipped with a wide mandate to heavily penalise the polluters, and there must be a fresh resolve to ensure that all future development is sustainable. Secondly, it is imperative that the state develop policies to focus on ancillary issues: population control, encouraging renewable sources of energy, implementing reforestation programmes, to name a few, and that it begin addressing the utter lack of public awareness in our society regarding environmental concerns.

Furthermore, Pakistan must also realise that, within this context, no country is an island. In the hyper-globalised modern economy, our concerns are inherently transnational in character. Signing and ratifying treaties, marking our attendance at international conferences and paying lip service to environmental conservation will no longer do. Our state must play a proactive role in the global fight for environmental justice, especially considering that Pakistan stands at number five on the Climate Risk Index for 2014.

It is high time to form a serious and lasting commitment to the preservation and conservation of our environment — for left to our own devices, we shall surely plunder the commons for all they are worth.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2017