Chapman: On Los Alamos County, Progress, And The Tragedy Of The Commons

On Los Alamos County, Progress, and The Tragedy of The Commons.

Resident of Los Alamos County (White Rock)

Having attended the last three public meetings on the Comprehensive Plan for Los Alamos County, I have heard about lots of possibilities for the growth and progress of the County. I have also heard a varied number of opinions about how this should (or should not) happen, coming from the citizens that either were at the meetings, or expressed their opinions using other avenues of communication.

This has gotten me to think a lot about how we can progress as a community while maintaining those aspects of our county that we value the most. As anyone would, I have used elements in my personal background to help bring about my own conclusions; I’m an evolutionary paleobiologist, with a high concentration on analytical methods and theoretical models. However, I have also spent significant time in the field looking for fossils and observing geology up close – something that keeps me, and other scientists like me, well-grounded (hopefully) in reality.

First, an assumption. I assume that everyone I’ve heard expressing an opinion – even those I really disagree with – is doing so from the basis of a sincere wish to do what they think is best for the County and our community. So this is solely my take on things and should not be interpreted as a caustic broadside on anyone or any organization.

Next, I want to introduce a theoretical concept that, I believe, is especially important to keep in mind when making decisions that affect an entire community. Once you understand it, you will see its tendrils in many things we encounter every day of our lives. Given the incredibly high average education levels and intelligence of the citizens of this community, I can’t imagine many here aren’t already well-familiar with the concept.

The Tragedy of the Commons:

For those not familiar with “The Tragedy of the Commons, (TOC)” Wikipedia gives a nice summary ( I first encountered it as a Biology major during my later undergraduate years (circa 1974), when I read the classic paper by the great ecologist Garret Hardin (Hardin, G.1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Science 162 (3859):1243-1248. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243). Hardin reminded the academic community of thisimportant concept and its many applications, especially to ecology and environmental areas.

The concept has influenced me considerably since that time, and it shows up as relevant to me over and over again in all sorts of contexts. This includes some of our current discussions going on about evolving (or not) our community.

In short, The Tragedy of the Commons, introduced by the Victorian economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833, is an economics theory that has broad applications in real life.I’ll give an example of the TOC using a variant on the original example given by Lloyd in 1833:

A town is made up of 20 families that generate income with dairy products. Each has five cows (total=100 for the town) and they all graze in the common grass field within, and owned by, the town as a community. The field generates enough grass to support this number of cows and the income provides enough support for the families. By calculation, each family gets 5 percent of the total income generated by grazing in the field (5 x 1 percent per cow).

One family (let’s say family #12) decides to ignore the agreed upon limit and adds a sixth cow. Given that the grass in the field, optimally, can fully support only a maximum of 100 cows, the addition of the 101st means each cow will get less grass and, consequently, will produce less milk.

In this case, each cow now gets not 1 percent, but 0.99 percent of the grass (actually 0.990099 percent). If you recalculate the production numbers, each of the other families (not #12) now gets 4.95 percent of the total income (previously 5 percent). Family #12, gets 5.94 percent of it.

The total is still 100 percent, but the extra income (0.99 percent) of the total that goes to family #12 is gained by shorting all the other 19 families by about 0.05 percent. But it is worse than that. Overtaxing a resource like this often leads to a reduction in the overall total production numbers, so the other families probably will make out even worse.

Typically, this then either leads to other families doing the same thing as #12 to make up for the shortfall,and the competition eventually leads to the collapse of the economy, or they visit family #12 with ill intent and make a forceful change.

You might see farmer #12 as an entrepreneur and his actions fair game, but that is incorrect. A true entrepreneur would find other plots of grass, buy or lease them, and put the extra cows there to increase familial income. As outlined above, farmer #12 is simply a jerk and his or her actions amount to the redistribution of wealth from others to him or her; i.e., a form of theft, in my opinion. To paraphrase the old saying, it is not helpful or moral to rob a bunch of Peters just to enrich Paul.

It’s not that a community cannot evolve, it just needs to do it in a way that does not destroy itself, and its key resources, in the process. It also must have buy-in from the members of the community. Communities facing and/or trying some evolution must try and approximate the Hippocratic Oath; first do no harm.

As I said, the concept works in many, many contexts. You encounter it, especially, whenever resources are limited and essential. As an example, you see it in typical fisheries where restrictions have to be put on the harvest, such as with the Bluefin tuna off of New England, or alligators in Louisiana. If you fish too much, the stocks of fish (or reptiles, etc.) plummet, and everyone suffers.

The Tragedy of the Commonsis, obviously, a relatively simple concept. It would be difficult to extrapolate it directly to some very complex, international problems. However, it works just fine on smaller-scale, localized ones, and even moderate to larger-scale ones, such as fisheries.

How is this relevant to Los Alamos, Ralph?

Short Answer: In all sorts of ways. Our problems and situations, especially neighborhood related ones, tend to be of limited scale. I’ll concentrate on one example, for now.

The Tragedy of the Commons addresses many issues related to shared, limited resources, and the behavior of individuals either for the common good, or for their own self-interest instead (i.e., contrary to the common good). It has direct implications on the current economic climate in this country where hyper-capitalism is running rampant and lots of Pauls are fleecing lots of Peters. I will not go into this large topic discussion for now, however.

The Tragedy of the Commons is something to keep in mind, and close to our hearts, as we try and evolve our community over the next decade. For example, many have a common goal in wanting the population of the County to increase by 2,000 or so families during this time.

I share that goal because we have significant gaps in our community that make it very difficult for many essential or desired changes/improvements to happen. We need to broaden our economic environment to make our community less dependent on the Lab, have input from other sources that can smooth out the bad times, and allow us to do lots more during the good times.

I also would like us to have a strong local business community, especially lots of great restaurants. Having this will strengthen our community as we experience more visitors and improve the quality of life of our residents. However, without a means of housing the workers that are needed for those businesses, we will never succeed at improving local commerce.

Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Working to facilitate this increase while maintaining what is great about Los Alamos is the trick. Certainly finding areas of the County that can be newly dedicated to additional housing possibilities is really important to achieve this goal, but they should be new to recent residential use, whenever possible. That way, they don’t badly affect established neighborhoods.

There are, however, discussions and potential actions circulating about introducing other residential options to established neighborhoods, allowing a more diverse suite of housing units in what have been, traditionally, single-family house areas.

The limited residential space available here in Los Alamos, makes this a potential economic boon for those that are allowed to do this; some residential units could have their worth go up considerably. However, this must be done only in situations where the result will not affect the value of the other residences in the neighborhood; after all, most houses here are not suitable to be expanded to do this, and such changes also might have a strong, negative effect on the quality of life of those living in the neighborhoods.

Most residents of the County have a huge investment in their houses; changing the neighborhood a lot may decrease the value of that investment. In that case, it is a classic example of The Tragedy of the Commons, as a few generate new income at the expense of the investments made by the rest of the neighborhood.

This would not be the case in every neighborhood, by any means, but providing changes to zoning, and allowing different construction, has to be done with this in mind; first do no harm. We must do this with a relatively conservative and informed strategy and handle things on a case by case basis.

This is but one example, but one that is important, I believe, right now as we make decisions about the future. There are many more relevant examples – I certainly think the quagmire of street parking within neighborhoods would reveal a lot of TOC examples – but you probably get the idea.

We should also keep in mind that we live on a group of mesas on the side of an extinct (hopefully) volcano. Ecologically, we are considered an island, or group of islands. Islands are tricky, and require more consideration to avoid being damaged and they can collapse easily.

If you want to know why some islands, especially in the past, had miniature elephants and giant rats (or miniature dinosaurs, in one example), let’s do lunch.

Anyway, let’s evolve and improve in a way that keeps the great aspects of Los Alamos great, and concurrently works to improve what needs improvement.

And can we please get a great Indian restaurant.