The Tragedy of the Commons


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I think that Betsy makes a really good point that Koppes is quick to highlight the lack of effectiveness that many initial policies had in reaction to the Dust Bowl, but he then fails to contextualize the evens in the framework of the infancy of the environmental movement. The part of Koppes’ book review that fascinated me most was his depiction of the dust bowl as an example of the tragedy of the commons on page 538. Summed up, the tragedy of the commons is a hypothetical economic situation where there is a patch of free land for anyone to use. It is in every individual’s best interest to use the land as much as they can, but because everyone uses the land it is ruined and its utility is negated. It is a major problem in modern environmental economics because it is hard to convince individuals to act against there best interest.

I must applaud Koppes for recognizing that the individual farmers were not acting irrationally and therefore should not be blamed for causing the dustbowl. Other scholarship he describes is very quick to blame the farmers and not look at the larger structural flaws, and that is an easy logical fallacy to make. I begin to disagree with Koppes because he is very critical of the New Deal government initiatives. While I agree that they weren’t very effective, I’m not sure what he realistically could have expected would be better. I also sense from his tone that he is critical of any government attempts to fix structural environmental problems. He is quick to point to the failure of the Soviet Union to prevent a similar dust bowl scenario in the 1960s, and their system was entirely government controlled. I would be interested to see an analysis of Western and Northern European farming policies and government regulations and interventions and then looking at their effectiveness. These countries have a pretty large amount of government intervention, but aren’t as purely growth at all costs driven as the U.S. in the 1920s or the USSR in the 1950s.