What can Interstellar Teach us about the tragedy of the Commons? (spoilers)

This post will contains some minor spoilers for the movie Interstellar. If you don’t want to read any spoilers, then stop reading now.

The tragedy of the commons represents a common good that without proper communication and planning can be destroyed through maximizing an individual’s utility. What does that mean? Well, a group of ranchers are sharing a field. One of them decides to make some additional money by buying, just ONE more head of cattle. He lets it eat in the grass that everyone else is sharing. No negative impact happens, the farmers discuss the number of cattle, which they had all agreed upon beforehand to be a set number. Since he increased his, everyone else does the same, eventually the land will not be able to sustain all the extra head of cattle, and the next year cattle start to die of starvation. Creating a crash in the economy.

According to Stephen Gardiner¬†climate change represents a tragedy of the commons. However, instead of the ranchers, we have our great grand parent’s decision impacting our climate today. Climate change effectively started during the Industrial Revolution and our actions will be impacting future generations. Since the future generation does not have a voice in the conversation, it’s hard for us to put off current needs for future needs. This is further exasperated by the fact that we cannot even work to improve conditions for our own children, let alone some faceless grand child or great grandchild down the road.

Interstellar offers a glimpse into why this is so difficult. First, there’s clearly gaps in education, Interstellar points this out through exaggerating what a lot of school boards are currently doing, they go to the extreme to say that the Apollo missions are faked as a propaganda tool to destroy the Soviet Union. Second, Matthew¬†McConaughey is one of the few forward thinking individuals, but he knows that we are continually leaving worse and worse conditions for our children, as a farmer he can see how poorly we’re fighting the blight that is killing our crops. Third, the time dilation he experiences being close to a blackhole allows him, while he’s still young, to see the full effects of his generations decisions on his children. He’s fully impotent to do anything about it, but he knows that the choices they made have fully doomed his children. Finally and I think most impactful, is the scene where Murph dies. He sees his grand children and great grand children and doesn’t even acknowledge them. He did everything he could for Murph but had no interest in seeing how all of this impacted his’s child’s children. Furthermore, Murph didn’t seem to want him to try to bridge that divide. Rather than try to build a relationship with the world as it was she pushed him to reunite with a crewmate that came from the same “world” as him.

All of these indicate that we have a serious tragedy of the commons problem. That education is required to even have a hope to combat the tragedy of the commons for climate change. That we must figure out a way to see past the here and now and create a seriously forward looking plan. That we cannot simply rely on a few forward thinking people because even they are limited in how much they can look to the future.

This is a serious concern because we now have a leader on the environmental committee in the US congress that doesn’t accept the evidence presented by scientists. Furthermore, the fact that lawmakers aren’t scientists seems to excuse them from understanding what people are saying about climate change.

We cannot expect some “they” to come and allow us to rescue ourselves with “their” help. We have to figure this out on our own. We’re failing miserably right now.

Another book that does a good job outlining these intergernational problems is the Forever War.

Can technology save us from Water problems?

In my last post I decided I was going to write a series about technological fixes that will have major ramifications on issues that result in social problems. In this post I’m going to discuss some problems with water  uses and some technological solutions that may be able to fix them.

We are seeing water issues all over the world where there simply isn’t enough access to fresh drinkable water. Last summer there was a horrible drought in Texas which caused wild fires to burn only 30 miles or so away from Austin. The area is still technically in a drought, although there is a glimmer of hope because there has been a decent amount of rain so far this spring.

In the US southwest there are serious disputes over water rights to the Colorado river. This dispute isn’t just between Arizona and California but also between California and Mexico. Because of the population growth in those areas if left unchecked it would be likely that the Colorado would never reach the Pacific Ocean and there would be no water to reach Mexico.

In the developing world, a major problem is clean drinking water. Water that isn’t clean carries a great deal of diseases and as we saw in Haiti only a few years ago can lead to large number of deaths. However, there’s a difference between the dispute over access to water in the US and Mexico and access to water in the developing world. It is more likely to cause wars and civil unrest.

There seem to be two major causes for water issues that we’re having. The first is pretty obvious, overpopulation in areas where water is already scarce. It’s been shown that the lower level of education and higher level of poverty leads to higher birth rates. In places that are already under stress a continually growing population makes things worse. However, in the US the cause is migration to these areas, such as Phoenix, San Diego and Austin. The second factor is climate change. With less snow fall on mountain ranges and shorter winters there is less water to flow in rivers that are caused primarily by snow melt. This change over time will lead to new areas that will be under water stress in the future.

There are some technologies that can alleviate the problems. One of them is desalination, which removes salt from water. This would allow cities near the coast to use the ocean as a source of water. The process requires the water to be boiled and moved into several different chambers for evaporation. The process produces extremely high salt concentrations in the remaining water. Most of which is pumped back into the ocean in the same area as the water is extracted. This continually increases the salinity in the area and can cause problems for the local flora and fauna.

This method provides clean drinkable water however, it is extremely expensive and the price of the water is extremely high. This makes it unlikely for the water to be affordable for the developing world and the developed world likely won’t want to pay for the advancement of the technology. In addition to this, it’s been suggested that nuclear energy be used to power the desalination plants. However, this has additional risks in war torn regions in the developing world. These plants may be attacked in an attempt to procure the nuclear material within to make weapons.

However, desalination seems to be the most likely method of alleviating water problems. If the technique was improved to the point that enough water could be piped to different parts of water stressed regions it could improve conditions in those areas and improve the amount of crops that were produced annually. This would reduce starvation and improve the general living conditions in those areas.

Unfortunately, this will take time and will need support from national level governments, supranational agencies like the UN and EU, local governments and research labs. However, in the current state of affairs governments do not seem to be in any sort of position to actually invest in this technology. The explanation of climate change would not be received well in the US as the vast majority of the Republicans believe that it is a hoax.

Instead of framing the discussion in terms of climate change the discussion needs to be framed in terms of the populations of large cities like San Diego and Phoenix. They need to be framed in terms of foreign policy. The issue between the US and Mexico is a perfect example of that. Improving the ability to desalinate water in the US will ensure that the US is able to use less and less of the Colorado and allow Mexico to use more of the water. Water should be considered a “tragedy of the commons” as it is easy for each member using the water source to use just a bit more until there’s none left for anyone else. A solution to a tragedy of the commons is to create a continually growing commons.

California, Mexico and Arizona should work together to create a consortia to develop the technology. Creating new systems to power the desalination plant would be useful. It’s expensive to power the plants, but if it is powered through a combination of solar energy, wind and nuclear the price will drop and water will be more plentiful.