The Plan Nord: A Quebecois, Modern Version of the Tragedy of the Commons?

10/01/2012 05:22 EDT | Updated 12/01/2012 05:12 EST

1. Managing the Commons

Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons probably has had a lot more impact in the decades that followed its 1968 publication than Hardin himself would have thought in the first place. For some, "the ideas that Hardin popularized have become the most widely accepted explanation for overexploitation of resources that are commonly held" (Fenny, Berkes, McCay, and Acheson, 1990, p.2).

1.1 The Tragedy of the Commons

In his most famous publication, Hardin uses the metaphor of herders sharing a pasture, which he calls the "commons." According to his rationale, the depletion of the commons' resources is inevitable: since herders all seek benefits for themselves (and their own herd) only, the size of the various herds will necessarily grow to a point where overgrazing becomes unavoidable, thereby compromising the very sustainability of the pasture. "Freedom in the commons brings ruin to all" (Hardin, 1968, p.1244). That is how the expression "tragedy of the commons" was coined.

One can easily deduct the following from Hardin's view: in an unregulated setting where a diffuse resource belongs to all, human beings are self-interested, they do not cooperate, and they cannot think long-term. In fact, Hardin helped -- maybe involuntarily -- forge the impression that public assets cannot be well managed because of the very nature of human beings, unless they are privatized or under absolute state control: failing to adopt either of these solutions would be tantamount to complying with the destruction of the commons (Hardin, 1968, p.1245).

1.2 The commons in today's world

The current global economic and ecological situation certainly is indicative of the fact that the world is not witnessing an impeccable management of common-property resources. In effect, untempered capitalism is causing substantial environmental harm and is endangering sustainability. Hardin would probably argue that this poor management is due to the fact that neither socialism, nor an absolutely free market has taken over. He could be right, since the management of natural resources often is a hybrid creature somewhere between state and private property; multiple states actually own the resources in the very first place and then determine the rules of the game for private exploitation. However, contradicting Hardin's argument are the indubitable facts that communism and socialism have failed almost everywhere they were adopted, and that the existence of an invisible hand controlling the free market is an idea that was discarded a long time ago.

As noted above, many of the most lucrative economic activities such as petroleum or mineral extraction do consist of the exploitation of resources that were under state property in the first place, but for which the state decided to issue a private lease. For instance, when a mining company exploits iron in Quebec, it must have previously acquired mining rights through a lease. In other words, even though the mining company itself is the property of a private entrepreneur, the right to exploit the resource was obtained through governmental approval. Indeed, according to the Canadian Constitution:

In each province, the legislature may exclusively make laws in relation to (a) exploration for non-renewable natural resources in the province; (b) development, conservation and management of non-renewable natural resources and forestry resources in the province, including laws in relation to the rate of primary production therefrom; and (c) development, conservation and management of sites and facilities in the province for the generation and production of electrical energy (Constitutional Acts, Art. 92A(1)).

Article 109 of the Constitution makes it even more undisputable that all minerals in Quebec are a provincial property:

All Lands, Mines, Minerals, and Royalties belonging to the several Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick at the Union [...] shall belong to the several Provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick in which the same are situate or arise [...] (Constitutional Acts, Art. 109)

Knowing that it is the state which decides what to do with its resources therefore makes it quite hard to exclusively blame mining companies for the depletion of the Quebecois and other states' resources; untempered capitalism is certainly not the hallmark of entrepreneurs alone. However, using the ideas and terminology of David Bollier instead of vesting our hopes in Hardin's somewhat extreme solutions may be very helpful in understanding where this private exploitation of state-owned resources becomes problematic.