Restoring the Battered Commons

"Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest," writes Garrett Hardin in his famous 1968 essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons." As a principal example, he continues, "maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the 'freedom of the seas.' Professing to believe in the 'inexhaustible resources of the oceans,' they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction."

This special report explores the many ways in which, after 40 years, there has been ample reconfirmation of Hardin's gloomy paradigm. Stewardship remains in short supply. Grimmest of many fishery assessments is the recent forecast that 100 percent of the world's fisheries will be "collapsed" to beneath commercial viability by 2048. Major changes in the temperature and chemistry of our waters caused by greenhouse emissions and climate change are having profound consequences. Ultra-sensitive coral reefs are fast vanishing. Coasts and estuaries are being ever more battered by imprudent shorefront development, toxic and nutrient runoff, and the effects of major storms and tsunamis. "Dead zones" containing little marine life occur with alarming frequency after algae, overfed by excess nutrients washed from farms into coastal waters, blossom, die, and deplete oxygen.

Harmful practices of course continue. This report's authors show how irresponsible forms of aquaculture damage wild fish populations and make life tougher for the fishermen hunting them. Powerful forces oppose the application of sound principles to the relentless advance of coastal development and pollution. Few involved question the ethics of their activities. While some U.S. states have recently become more progressive in their approach to coast and ocean issues, federal leadership has been sorely lacking. But there are a few breaks in the clouds, with surprising gains in the traditionally abysmal quality of U.S. fishery management, and measures of hope resulting from the ways in which some citizens and political leaders are at last squarely facing up to the need to curb greenhouse emissions.

It is nearly too late for the tide to turn. It will be a long way home. But with a new crowd soon to take the helm in Washington, in a position to set better policies in domestic waters and exercise international leadership as well, this report's authors sense a real if faint opportunity to improve the sad condition of our ocean commons -- and stalwartly advance the exceptions to Hardin's dour rule.

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