Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Archive for the ‘ToCs’ Category

More on the tragedy of the space commons

Posted by Rich Sweeney on February 19, 2009

Last year I wrote about the costly exernalities associated with the US’s decision to blow up a defucnt satellite instead of removing it from orbit. In today’s NYTimes, James Clay Moltz details the increasingly unstable nature of current space use practices. While we’re probably a long way away from establishing near space property rights, we clearly need some sort of international agreement which partially internalizes the social costs of cluttering the sky with trash.

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Go fish

Posted by Rich Sweeney on August 6, 2008

Today at RFF Harrison Fell gave an interesting overview of current topics in fishery research. I love to fish, but know basically nothing about the economics of fisheries (other than the basic tragedy of the commons stuff). Thus I was pretty surprised to hear about all of the cool research currently going on in this field. Here are some highlights.

Bio-economics: It’s pretty obvious that overfishing can severely curb the size of fish stocks over time. What’s less obvious (at least to me), is how fishing can affect the physical characteristics of a given species over time. But recent research indicates that this may be precisely what’s happening. Fishing nets are designed to catch fish once they reach a given size. But, just like people, some fish grow faster than others. Thus, bigger fish are being weeded out of the reproductive pool earlier than smaller fish, possibly putting downward pressure on the average size of the species. This phenomenon was the subject of an article in Science this year called “The role of Fisheries-Induced evolution”. If true this could dramatically alter many of the dynamic game solutions of prior fisheries research and influence the regulation of fishing practices going forward.

Perverse incentives: While there’s still a lot of work to be done, fisheries regulation has gotten better and smarter over time in America and the EU. However these policies only control for behavior within 200 miles of domestic shore. The response in countries like Spain and Portugal has been to head south to engage in shady agreements to fish the territories of African nations. Not much is known about how these bribes licenses are negotiated and monitored, or how revenues are redistributed.

A less deadly catch? Finally, Harrison mentioned that there’s some evidence that individual fishing quotas (IFQs) may be improving worker safety in the fishing industry. Previous suboptimal policy approaches, such as total allowable catch, encouraged boats to go balls to the wall in an all out race until the limit was reached. Looks like Kurt better speed up his data collection process if he wants to identify a risk wage premium in fishing labor data.

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Space waste – A tragedy of the cosmic commons

Posted by Rich Sweeney on February 15, 2008

Yesterday the Bush administration ordered the military to attempt to shoot down a crippled spy satellite in the next two weeks. While the administration says that it needs to destroy the satellite in order to “prevent any possible contamination from the hazardous rocket fuel on board”, I think it’s clear to all that this is action is a direct response to China’s similar act a year ago. Ignoring all the disingenousness of the justificaton (as if Bush cares about the environment) and the ridiculousness of the missile defense program (Reagan literally dreamed it up after watching Star Wars), there is an interesting economics component to the this story.

Standard procedure for removing unwanted or obsolete satellites from space involves taking them out of orbit and letting them disintegrate in the heat of the atmosphere. This results in essentially no remaining debris. China, for reasons we can only guess at, decided to ignore this protocol when it shot it’s satellite down last January. This resulted in an explosion of debris which is currently racing around the Earth at ten times the speed of a bullet. The effect has been a significant increase in the incidence of debris damage to other satellites. This is interesting because while “space” is conceptually limitless, the section of space optimal for observing and communicating with our planet is becoming increasingly crowded. However, given all of the complexities associated with delimiting and regulating it, this “space” is still essentially a free for all, with actors ignoring externalities and shortsightedly plundering a limited resource. Thus, if we are not careful, space, or at least a section of it, could go the way of Hardin’s commons.

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