Head in a Cloud

troposphere and stratosphere meet blogosphere

Head in a Cloud random header image

The Tragedy of the Commons: Peak Oil and Climate Change

February 6th, 2008 by jason english · 10 Comments

“The Tragedy of the Commons” was published in Science in 1968 by Garrett Hardin. Hardin argued that some problems have “no technical solution”. A technical solution is something that can be solved by technology or the natural sciences, demanding no change in human values or ideas of morality. The problem Garrett was referring to was exponential human population growth. With population growth comes increases in human needs for agriculture, energy, shelter, etc. As the earth is a finite size, this would result in a drawdown of the earth’s resources, and eventual human suffering on a global scale. Since decision of family size are made within the narrow framework of one’s personal life, the slight additional load on the earth is temporarily overlooked, until it the earth reaches a critical point, and all of humanity suffers. Garrett argued that the only solution to this eventual problem is “mutual coercive agreement”, e.g. we need to all agree to limit family size for the sake of future generations.

Fast forward 40 years. Clearly we have no limitation of family size (except in China). Fortunately, human population growth has slowed somewhat due to family planning, education, affluence, gender equality, and shifting cultural norms. However, the population is still at 6.5 billion humans and projected to reach a peak of 9 billion in 2050. There are various projections of the sustainable carrying capacity of the earth which range from 1 to 6 billion humans – all projections which do not encompass future human population. The impact on the earth by humans is Population x Consumption, and economic growth, energy usage, land usage, raw materials, etc have increased.

This has inspired an article by Bob Lloyd in Energy Policy in 2007 entitled “The Commons revisited: The Tragedy Continues” with a focus on Peak Oil and Climate Change. Oil consumption and climate change are obviously interrelated (There continues to be debate as to the extent that greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, but there is overwhelming evidence that they are one of the most important causes, if not the most important). Lloyd argues that humans are addicted to oil, that this addiction will cause the dual consequences of climate change and economic turmoil (when peak oil is reached), and most importantly, has “no technical solution”. Lloyd goes on to argue that emission controls like Kyoto won’t fix the problem as they lend the responsibility to the free market, which caused the problem in the first place, and has loopholes such as carbon sink credits for biomass planting which may end up releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Lloyd believes that the only solution is a “mutually coercive agreement” by limiting consumption, which could be obtained by an economic structure such as “Unitax” where energy and consumption are taxed, while labor is not. This could solve the energy problem as well as the climate problem by putting economic incentives in line with the earth’s limitations. Lloyd concludes with the fear that governments and corporations, concerned with the short term, will not take the necessary actions until it is too late, and that we should all plan on an uncertain and difficult future.

I like to be an optimist, and I try to be open-minded. As a result, I struggle when people are a) negative and b) opinionated. However, I have a hard time rationalizing why we should not be concerned. Humanity currently uses 85 million barrels of oil per day; 1000 barrels per second. This comes out to 6 trillion kilojoules of energy per second. That is a lot of energy. And this isn’t just for driving our cars – our entire global economy is dependent upon cheap oil – everything takes energy, from plastics, to computers, to solar panels, to houses, to food. Is this energy from oil an infite resource? Of course not. Oil takes millions of years for nature to create. So how much do we have left? 90% of experts believe that peak oil occured in the past 2 years, or will occur in the next 2 years. Of course, we will only know in hindsight. What does the data say? Oil prices have doubled since 2005, yet global and OPEC oil production have remained flat since 2005. Additionally, there are no major geopolitical activities preventing oil production (in fact, during the Iraq war, OPEC oil production actually increased). The free market economy dictates that production will increase to meet demand….unless there is a production limitation. So it looks like we are at the peak of oil production, and in the next 10 to 20 years, will need to find a replacement for oil which provides us with 6 trillion kilojoules of energy per second. All of our current alternatives fall way short of oil’s energy intensity, with the exception of coal, which is an environmental disaster (mercury, sulfate, and greenhouse gases pollutants). And even coal is finite, with the latest projections that humanity could hit “Peak Coal” in the next 30 years. Yet, the public is ignorant to this looming threat, politicians don’t discuss it, and humanity puts forth a meager budget to developing alternatives.

I refuse to turn into a depressed pessimist, so I will reach out to anyone to please comment and convince me not to be concerned. And I will close with the only thing I can think of to help convince me that everything will be ok; a quote by Margaret Meade: “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Tags: ATOC Journal Club · climate · general interest · global warming

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lou // Feb 7, 2008 at 5:12 am

    It IS scary, but maybe we/people need to be a little scared to make some serious changes. Keep getting the information out there – I think it does make a difference. You’ve certainly helped me be more aware of my consumption and environmental footprint!

  • 2 Jim // Feb 7, 2008 at 6:53 am

    The average citizen expects the next generation to fix the problem. Kudos to you for your knowledge and concern. Keep the education going.

  • 3 Sandi // Feb 7, 2008 at 8:30 am

    We have our day to day lives to lead and don’t pay much attention to what actually makes things tick as they do. Unless people like you, Jason, open our eyes and see what is evidently in front of us, we continue to go on with our lives.

    Your research is not in vain, we need people like you to educate us as you just have. I appreciate your efforts and will continue to look for more information, from you, to ponder.

  • 4 Chad // Feb 7, 2008 at 8:32 am

    It’s a pretty grim picture. Just gotta have faith and do what you can. At least the worst president in the history of the US will be out at the end of the year.


  • 5 Dave Gardner // Feb 7, 2008 at 8:37 am

    I think the pessimistic view is that we are too stupid and greedy to change our ways just so future generations can enjoy the planet (or perhaps even exist). The optimistic view is that we are smart enough to recognize/anticipate the consequences of our actions and band together as Hardin suggested, to solve the problem.

    It’s hard to have positive messages when there are so many things we need to STOP doing. Is our species so vain and petty that the only way we can incite change is to dangle a sweet treat over the wise path we need to take? Apparently many (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, most politicians, many environmental NGOs) believe that to be the case. I fear they are selling us a pipe dream that we can change our light bulbs and embrace a few new technologies, and presto-changeo we can continue growing our economy and population with impunity.

    The one positive thing I can suggest is for us to replace the global religion that worships growth everlasting with a religion that worships health and true happiness – relationships, community, time laying in the grass watching the clouds. Let’s start a megachurch! (No, because bigger is not better!)

    Sorry, more questions here; not many answers. But thanks, Jason, for an articulate post.

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  • 6 Joe Flasher // Feb 7, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Jason, I guess I am an optimist in the sense that I believe that there is a ‘technical solution’. I believe that it is there if we try hard enough to find it. The previous comment mentioned Nordhaus & Shellenberger, and I’d agree with their general sentiment. If we require people to see the ‘error of their ways’, we have turned this into a moral issue and no one likes to be told they are morally bankrupt.

    Instead, make it worth someone’s while to change the way they live. I don’t actually think we’re hooked on oil, we are instead hooked on energy. If you replaced oil with something else, I don’t think anyone would care (minus the oil companies!). This takes investment and I imagine people might be willing to do this. Instead of asking someone to not drive a car, why not ask them to pay a $100 a year for driving that car. Use that money to invest in research for better cars or better fuels. I think people would much rather give some money to something instead of changing the way they live.

    So I do believe that there is a ‘technical solution’ to this problem. In fact, I think the only solution is technical. I don’t believe a moral consensus solution (reduced emissions across the world) is practical. And even if this moral solution is achieved, we are still in trouble for some time to come.

    And as to why we can’t seem to save ourselves when we know things are going down hill? Well, that seems like a philosophical question. And even if we knew the answer, I am not sure it’d really help.

  • 7 Lynn // Feb 7, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    Your last quote does have merit. I think that awareness of actions is a big step towards improvement.

    I know I will pledge to have a small house where there will be less impact on the earth. My diesel car also emits less CO2 than a small car. Who knew?

    I like this caculator.

    I think you should have a positive outlook on the earth’s future. Just think of it as an opportunity help change the world. If you surround yourself with positive people that want to make a difference and if you assume that they are surrounding themselves around people with similar beliefs for improving the earth’s situation, you’ll get what’s called the Hundredth Monkey Effect.

    Just have patience and focus on how each day you can make things better. Bring attention to friends family about how they can make a positive impact rather than say how bad the world is going to be.

    Stay positive and good things will come!

  • 8 jason english // Feb 13, 2008 at 6:42 pm

    Thanks everybody for your thoughtful comments. Some were more optimistic than others, but they were all solution-oriented, which is most important.

    I’ve seen a few things lately which give hope to wind power as a possible substitute for oil/coal. Marc Jacobson of Stanford just gave a really excellent (and hopeful) talk on Friday at CU. Here’s a link to his website on wind power.


    Also, Lester Brown recently published Plan B 3.0. I read Plan B 2.0 a few years ago and it was the most comprehensive and optimistic solution-oriented book on sustainable economy/ecology that I have ever read. Lester Brown discusses the latest wind energy capabilities and believes the global economy/environment won’t collapse if the world installs at war-time speed 1.5 million wind turbines at 2 megawatts each by 2020. This is a lot, but we are not too late yet. As a courtesy to the world, the Earth Policy Institute has made available Plan B 3.0 free of charge for download here.


    Ok, I am convinced: we are not too late yet. Awareness and Action will lead to sustainability.


  • 9 Mike Mills // Feb 19, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    For the latest dismal confirmation of peak oil, check out Paul Krugman’s blog today:


  • 10 Kevin Cox // Jun 8, 2008 at 2:07 am

    There is a technical solution to the tragedy of the commons based on mutual benefit. Extra funds are collected for use of the commons but the money is given back to the consumers – not the owners of rights be they public owners or private owners. The extra funds have to be used to extend the commons or to reduce the “demands on the common.”

    To see how to implement this for any particular situation visit

Leave a Comment