18 November 2007

Tragedy and Travesty of the Commons

One of the key features of digital commons - like free software or science - is that there is no tragedy in the classical sense: it is impossible for users to "overgraze" a digital commons in the way they can a physical one.

That analogue tragedy can even by caused by the selfish actions of just one player. A case in point is the cetacean commons, which a few decades ago came perilously close to the ultimate tragedy: total destruction. That, happily, was avoided, but there are still a few benighted groups who insist on taking for themselves what belongs to all.

Worse, that selfishness is escalating:

A Japanese whaling fleet has set sail aiming to harpoon humpback whales for the first time in decades.

The fleet is conducting its largest hunt in the South Pacific - it has instructions to kill up to 1,000 whales, including 50 humpbacks.

This extraordinary display of contempt for the global community is compounded by a further insult. The "justification" for this pointless slaughter is given as:

killing whales allowed marine biologists to study their internal organs

What, you mean to find out if they have a brain, unlike the whalers who insist on hunting endangered species back to the brink of extinction?

Not so much a tragedy of the science commons as a travesty.

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