Global issues need global solutions: those who talk to climate researchers know this sentence. He has become a mantra of climate protection - and he also points to his biggest problem. How to organize the protection of an abstract common good such as the atmosphere? How do you ensure that the individual no longer hides behind the other seven billion inhabitants of the earth, the individual state no longer behind the other around 190?
The challenge of climate change is unprecedented. But ultimately, the climate is also about managing shared resources wisely. That's exactly what people have always succeeded at the local level.
Much like humanity as a whole, fishermen in Maine have not lived very sustainably for a long time. When the demand for lobsters rose sharply at the beginning of the twentieth century, they pulled out as many animals as they could get. Among them far too small animals and pregnant females. That was already forbidden by law, but many fishermen did not care. They scraped the black sticky eggs off the females' lower body so they would not look pregnant - and sold them.
In the short term, that brought money to the fishermen and, in the long run, lobster stocks shrank. At the end of the twenties, when the global economic crisis brought down lobster prices, 40 percent of lobster fishermen in Maine had to give up their work ( Ecology & Society : Acheson, 2011).
The world belongs to us all - and nobody
The remaining lobster fishermen realized that they needed to change something. That it endangered their livelihoods, if they continue to exploit the lobster stocks so relentlessly. What if one day no lobster went online? Then they would all be unemployed. The way to protect the stocks was also clear: Small lobsters and large females did not belong in the cooking pot, but back into the sea. Only one problem remained: those who did not follow the rule threatened to become losers.
The situation in which the fishermen were, is one in which we are all day in, day out: the dilemma of the commons. The commons are a common property that belongs to no one and everyone at the same time. And that is naturally limited. Pastureland, shared by several shepherds, is a commons. Just like a public park or river water that farmers use to irrigate their fields. And the atmosphere is a kind of commons too. We use them as storage for the CO2 that comes from our consumption. But if the reservoir is overcrowded, because we are over-exploiting it right now, climate change threatens as a consequence. Again, there is the egotistical temptation not to worry about the big picture as long as everyone else does not. Be it as a nation or as an individual.
Dealing with the commons is similar to what behavioral scientists call the Prisoner's Dilemma. It describes a fictional situation in which two people are accused of a crime, a bank robbery, for example. Both can confess or be silent. Silence both, they have to go to jail for a short time. If both confess, they go to jail for a long time. On the other hand, if one person is silent while the other confesses, the latter becomes a witness. He has to go to prison for the shortest time, but his counterpart is long. For the individual, it seems the wisest thing to confess. But confess both, that's the worst solution. At group level, it is best to be silent and to cooperate with them.
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Transferring this classic model to commons means that on an individual level, it is rational to fish as much or to feed as many cows as possible. But if they do all, the sea is quickly overfished and the pasture is quickly eaten away. "The freedom of the commons brings all ruin," wrote biologist Garrett Hardin in his well-known essay The tragedy of the commons ( Science: Hardin, 1968). His thesis shaped the worldview of many people: We humans are egoists and exploiters. Preserving common goods, that is contrary to our nature.
The lobster catastrophe did not happen
Hardin's text appeared in 1968. Nearly forty years after the lobster fishermen of Maine faced the tragedy that Hardin painted on the wall: the destruction of their commons, the lobster stocks. But the point of the lobster story is - as one would expect - that the fishermen never experienced the tragedy. The trick they used was easy. They put a big pregnant female on board in an iron cage, and not only did they carefully put them back into the water - always with their backs first, so that the eggs that stick to the belly of the lower body did not fall off on impact. No, they also cut a small notch into the caudal fin for the pregnant and big females. Lobsters with a notch were henceforth taboo: who tried to sell a lobster with the characteristic V in the caudal fin, was considered a traitor to his guild - and who found him on his plate, could be sure that the chefs of the restaurant in which he sat, the lobster stocks were not at heart. In general, because most people in Maine who eat lobsters know the rules, it will be hard to get rid of a notched female at all.
The small V in the tail fins showed its effect. From the forties on, most fishermen joined in and, as lobsters get old, in the year 2000, 80 percent of the fertile females raised by the fishermen carried V. The lobster stocks recovered. The lobster fishery in Maine is still considered sustainable and the lobster fishermen are prouder than ever on their craft.
A glorious exception? Hardly likely! If you look closely, you will find examples all over the world that man can cultivate and preserve the commons. In the municipality of Törbel in the Swiss Alps, farmers have been following their own rules for hundreds of years: they are sustainable with the communal gardens, the water of the mountains and the steep pastureland. The same applies to Huerta, a system of irrigation canals near the arid Spanish city of Valencia, and to Nepal's municipal forests, which use the local people without completely destroying them.