Does The Tragedy of the Commons Exist in Preservation?

Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, is, at first glance, an argument in favor of population control. Using the idea of “the commons” – a space shared to and by all – and the “tragedy of the commons” – the destruction of this shared space due to the concurrent individualistic and identical actions by the population to use the commons to their own advantages – to suggest that “abandoning the commons of breeding”, or a person/family’s decision to reproduce, is the only practical solution (albeit a “non-technical” one) to maintain a healthy world population.

Throughout the first portion of the reading, I wondered to myself how the idea of the commons/tragedy of the commons relates to historic preservation, and how it could be used to argue for or against it. Hardin beat me to the punch by using the example of the National Parks system – arguing that since each National Park is unique (appearance, scope, location, topological features), yet the population continues to grow, the increased number of people who exist to visit the parks will depreciate the value of the park. Therefore, Hardin recommends that the parks should not be treated as commons and suggests selling the land or privatizing visitation (thus defining an economic value to the space as well as the preexisting natural/cultural/social one). I disagree with this assessment of National Parks as a tragedy of the commons. In fact, I would argue that their classification as natural resources perpetuates their both their status as a commons and their value, and does not erode it as Hardin suggests.

Take Grand Canyon National Park. It is indeed a commons: visited by the public on both a national and international scale. GCNP does not just offer splendid views, although at face value one would expect marveling at the landscape to be a main activity in a visit to the park. The National Park Service facilitates activities including hiking and horseback riding through outside companies, and as a result not only privatizes and restricts areas of the park to specific activities, but also defines value for the park — what can, cannot, and should occur when visiting. These activities create in itself a new commons within the commons of the park. As it is owned by an entity other than itself, Grand Canyon National Park has become something beyond the Grand Canyon as a geographical entity. It is not mandatory to do anything besides take in the views – but for some visitors these supplemental activities enhance the experience.

Arielle (center) with mom and sister doing some horseback riding, ca. 2007.

The author (center) with mom and sister doing some horseback riding at Grand Canyon National Park, and hopefully not contributing to a tragedy of the commons. (ca. 2007)

As such, National Parks, and historic sites in general, cannot be a tragedy of the commons, since one visitor’s “gain[1]” is unique to him and might not be the same as someone visiting at the same time, one year after, or ten years before. Depending on a person’s background, age, and other social/demographic factors, the park is experienced through a lens shaped by their previous life experience. The activities offered by the park, in some cases, reinforce this idea of individual gain. Someone may visit for the hiking, and see the “view from the top” as a reward for a strenuous workout. Others may arrive initially at the top of a rock formation, and gain enough from admiring the vast views and millennia of geological transformation.

Finally, the tragedy of the commons in National Parks is prevented through geology. When I visited in 2007, it was emphasized that the Colorado River, the main body of water responsible for the layers of rock formations seen in the Grand Canyon, has been drying up, and could be gone in as few as 30 or 40 years. Recognizing that the site is in a constant state of change, and that the condition in which one visitor sees it it will be different than someone who saw it before or after, adds value to the exact time at which a visit occurs. Such is the quandary of a natural site, open to the elements in a way that cannot be repaired or maintained like a building. It should not, however, be seen as a susceptibility because it is a natural and recognized environmental pattern. Thus, a natural site is differentiated from an object of preservation such as a historic house like Mount Vernon or Monticello, which are seen in stasis-like states of time that remain consistent for all visitors. With both, however, it is the unique gains and takeaways of each visitor to a site that ensures a commons sustained over time.

[1] For Hardin, every human seeks to “maximize their gain” when confronted with a problem or activity.

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