Trademark, Copyright & IP

Innovation — The Answer to the "Unmanaged" World Commons

September 2008

By Christopher C. Gallagher*

When in 1968 Garrett Hardin coined the phrase "tragedy of the commons," he elegantly described the age-old phenomenon of "me first, let others take care of themselves," an inclination for self-preservation hard-wired into our human DNA. But man has never been the strongest animal in the jungle. Procreation and survival as a species have required cohabitation and collaboration with other hominids. Such cooperative conduct can require altruistic behavior inconsistent with our "me first" inclinations.

Hardin's "commons" analysis describes this conflict in the context of a village commons serving as a communal resource. His "tragedy" could be resolved then by moving on to a new community. Indeed two hundred years earlier, Thomas Malthus predicted that the planet's resources had limits that would soon be exhausted by population growth. Unaware then of undiscovered open space and the power of technology to better utilize existing resources, Reverend Malthus may have been premature in his forecast but he was not wrong. Now overpopulation, epidemic disease and global warming are some of the many developments now confirming the Malthusian notion that earth has its limits...limits if exceeded that can threaten survival of our species and our planet.

Hardin is said to have wished he had described his "tragic commons"' as an "unmanaged commons," hoping perhaps that, if properly managed, a commons need not meet a tragic end. Similar altruistic and utopian management objectives drive the world's various religious, legal, political and economic constructs, as we reach in vain for the right balance between individual and universal welfare.

Most recently, John McCain's "our country first" mantra reflects this theme, arguing for a federal government whose goal is to organize the country's common good. But with today's global economy no single nation can manage the global commons. The entire world is now connected through globalized information, communication and the competitive quest for resources, production and consumption. And while everyone can agree that management of the earth's commons is desirable, it has proven to be consistently unattainable. Nation states with different resources at different stages of development differently define their own principles of "me first."

Worse, the unmanageable world commons appears to be reverting to smaller, more trustworthy tribal management rather than expanding world government into the scale required to manage the world commons. And logic tells us that, if the commons cannot be managed, Hardin's tragedy becomes inevitable. The dictates of simple logic suggest "me first" as the only remaining rational choice. So is there another road open besides this tragic road to extinction? Can some higher power be created to manage the world commons? The answer becomes increasingly unclear.

Let's forget about religion. However compelling to some, its simple solutions to the "me first-common welfare" conflict are not accepted universally. In fact, in many cases "not accepted" is a grotesque understatement as evangelical obsession and doctrinal exclusivity leads towards human destruction rather than collaboration, even among those who share the same Abrahamic narrative. The unilateral imposition of American political ideals has been a miserable failure. Fareed Zakaria explains in his recent book about The Post American World why our chance to implement that approach is long gone. Pat Choate confirms in his just published, Dangerous Business how mercantilism now rampant in rising Asian nations, that Zakaria describes as "the rest," will continue to pursue "me first" mercantilism, as they leverage globalization to accelerate their own economic development.

Echoing Malthus with current scientific data, in his recently released book, Common Wealth... Economics for a Crowded Planet, economist Jeffery Sachs confirms the world's spatial limits, then pins our survival on innovative technology, arguing that, in order to turn today's "tragedy of the world commons" into something manageable, we need sustainable technology or "s-tech". He proposes a "four-part strategy of: goals, technology, implementation, and finance for scale-up. These must be augmented by three other critical processes: an on-going scientific assessment, public financing for basic science and early stage technologies, and public-private strategies to bring newly proven technologies to mass scale." (Common Wealth, p 297.)

In short, since we have run out of room, there are no other places to start anew. Our only hope is the innovation that will stretch the commons back to the point where common management again becomes a possibility. Globalization's chief tub-thumper Thomas Friedman sees it as driven by the ten "flatteners" which are laid out convincingly in The World Is Flat. He would do well to review the conflicting "rounders" that are now unflattening them, as listed by Pat Choate in Dangerous Business, some of which I have alluded to above.

How we get out of this Malthusian mess is not clear. We clearly need more time. Until more universally accepted management of the world commons becomes more likely, innovative technology is all that still stands between our survival and our extinction as a nation, and maybe even as a species. Both candidates for President seem to understand this, but neither seems to connect it to proposed changes in our patent laws that will imperil such innovation, stripping away incentives for its development, and giving it away to multinational corporations and nation states whose economic objectives are not at all consistent with our national interest.

We have by now learned from AIDS, SARS, food poisoning, job deprivation and security risks, among other maladies arising out of today's unmanaged globalism, that the USA is not a gated community. We are vulnerable to the world's woes. Accordingly, at the very least, we must protect our innovation ecosystem, since it now provides our only hope for time to find the commons management solution that thus far has not materialized. If we do not, our only remaining alternative becomes the "me first" route and that, I am afraid, leads to the end of the global village.

* Christopher Gallagher is admitted in New Hampshire.

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