Leading The Change Book

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Changing Course in Today’s World

In The Environmental Endgame (2006), Robert Nadeau1 argues that “we have entered a new phase of human history that cannot be one of separation and division but must be one of cooperation and mutual goals.”

It is hard to exaggerate, however, the extent, complexity, and difficulty of such a change. We are talking about something on the magnitude of the agricultural or the industrial revolutions; and essentially about making it happen in the course of a single generation.

For it is those of us alive today who will either avert a planetary-scale “tragedy of the commons,” or witness its occurrence.

The “tragedy of the commons,” as set out by Garrett Hardin in his famous 1968 article, is one of those things many of us learn about (at least in passing) and then try to think about as little as possible, except to say that economics should figure out a way to put a price on those things we now call “externalities,” in order to make sure that someone is paying to fix them.

But this is in fact completely contrary to what Hardin is actually saying, namely that this is one of those problems that does not have a technical solution.

An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.2

The “problem” that Hardin is referring to here is that of overpopulation. “Overpopulation” is itself a loaded term; but there is no question that even though more than half of the world’s current 6.8 billion people live at a subsistence level, all of us together have clearly surpassed the planet’s carrying capacity. Unless we can eliminate much of our waste, and use our limited resources much more efficiently, we cannot sustain even the present population level, which is predicted to continue to grow at the present rate to more than 9 billion by 2050.

The challenge, then, is to create a world that can sustain nearly half as many more people than today while doing substantially less of the damage we are already doing to our habitat.

To achieve this will require us to change just about everything: what we do and the way we do it, what we believe and the way we think, and how we communicate and organize things.

According to Hardin,

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

The implication, Hardin argues, is that, uncontrolled,  humans acting rationally in their own self-interest will inevitably exhaust the natural resources which sustain all of us. This is, in a sense, the counter argument to Adam Smith’s notion that the pursuit of self-interest leads to optimal outcomes.

In economic affairs, The Wealth of Nations (1776) popularized the “invisible hand,” the idea that an individual who “intends only his own gain,” is, as it were, “led by an invisible hand to promote … the public interest” (5). Adam Smith did not assert that this was invariably true, and perhaps neither did any of his followers. But he contributed to a dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive action based on rational analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society. If this assumption is correct it justifies the continuance of our present policy of laissez-faire… If the assumption is not correct, we need to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.

Some people have misinterpreted Hardin to be arguing for the “privatization” of public resources, on the grounds that only in that way will they be “allocated rationally.” But this was certainly not his point. On the contrary, his conclusion in the matter of population is that “The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.” Presumably this applies also to the other examples of the “commons” also, such as the atmosphere – we must relinquish the freedom to pollute, to waste, and to deplete nonrenewable resources.

Generalized, what Hardin is discussing has been described as “a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.” And in Hardin’s view, where we are talking about “public goods” we must restrain individual self-interest, in the larger interest of preserving everyone’s right to share in what is available, to have access to clean air, clean water, and a livable environment. We can do this through control, or we can do it through cooperation; but in the end, we must adjust human behavior to operate within the constraints of the natural environment.

Nadeau is making a similar point, and much of his book is devoted to proving that “our current governmental and financial institutions, based on neoclassical economics, lack the mechanisms for implementing viable solutions to large-scale crises.”

In the end, both authors are making the case that we must change our way of thinking, if we are to end up with positive outcomes. In Nadeau’s case, “The book concludes with a call to view the natural world as part of humanity, not separate from it” (though actually it is humanity that is part of the natural world not vice versa). Hardin is more skeptical, because he believes that natural selection breeds selfish behaviors, and there is not much we can do about it.

Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

Mostly, however, we need to prevent disaster “by coercive laws or taxing devices,” that make it forbidden or excessively expensive to continue polluting, wasting, or exploiting what belongs to everyone.

But even in Hardin’s case, such controls or imposed solutions must actually come about through conscious, well-informed, and deliberately-chosen collaboration. The point, then, is that we humans must act differently than in the past, and together we must forge different laws, practices, and institutions. This is, if tragedy is to be averted, a monumental transformation.

<–|[1]Professor of Environmental Science and Public Policy, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.
<–|[2]“The Tragedy of the Commons,” Published in Science, December 13, 1968. It is worth reading this article in its original form, as opposed to merely others’ interpretations of it (which is why I have quoted from it directly).

Leading the Change

Humans do control their own destiny even if, as Marx pointed out, they are obliged to make history “under circumstances not of their own choosing.” We humans do “create reality,” which does not mean that things do not exist apart from us but that we are only able to take into account that which we can apprehend, and that we are 100% responsible for the outcomes. This reality is not moreover an illusion; it has real consequences, and plenty of them unintended ones.

The only way we can make a difference is by conscious and concerted action. Hence the need for leadership; we must rise to the occasion. Life gives us a choice: to be more conscious, more knowledgeable, more responsible; or to be less so.

While it may seem as if “selfishness” is the natural state of man, the reality is that what genuinely inspires us, what we call “noble,” is in fact choosing the greater good. It is choosing the larger over the smaller sense of “self”; it is self as oneness, as everyman.

This then is our present challenge: to awaken the hero, the leader, the savior, in everyone. To put humanity on a different path, a path that leads to forever instead of to a dead end.


If you would like to make a contribution to this initiative, please contact [email protected].

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Leadership Quotes

"Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged."
(Thomas A. Edison—thanks to Regan Caton)

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” (G.B. Shaw)

"There is the true joy of life: to be used by a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; to be thoroughly worn out before being thrown on the scrap heap; to be a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that life will not devote itself to making you happy." (G.B. Shaw)

"Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed." (Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya - thanks to Christine Comaford, Rules for Renegades)