Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Water, Alfalfa, China, and a modern Tragedy of the Commons

Posted 12 Aug 2014 / 0

NPR Morning EditionIn Time Of Drought, Arizona’s Alfalfa Exports Are Criticized

There are so many interesting aspects to this story. First and foremost, it illustrates that “tragedies of the common” are entirely, well — common — in modern economies. The rules of resource use dictate whether that resource will be over-exploited: if there are no incentives for conservation or disincentives for over-use, the resource is likely to be poorly managed from the “whole society” perspective.

What is fascinating about this story is all the geographically and culturally wide-spread factors leading to this unfortunate rush to make alfalfa hay for Chinese cows. The rising economic power of China means that it will commandeer more and more resources from distant continents (and not just Africa!). This particular demand is for a resource — animal feed — that decreases the overall capacity of our country (and the planet) to produce food for humans. The rise in demand for animal products from China is also a reflection of rising economic inequity: only the relatively wealthy can afford meat and milk made with imported feed, and China’s “rising middle class” is really an upper class when compared with the “class” of the rest of Asia and the world. And of course American demands ultimately make this odd-but-contemporarily-common exchange of resources possible: the reason that it is economically profitable to ship shrink-wrapped hay across the Pacific Ocean is that American consumers have already paid for the round-trip freight by purchasing Chinese goods.

All in all, a perfectly Twenty-First Century tragedy of the commons.


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