Opinion | Ecolacy as well as numeracy and literacy

Some 40 years ago Garrett Hardin, puzzling over the problems of our exponentially increasing human population, gave us the concept of the tragedy of the commons – what happens when a resource is over exploited. 

For those of us, like me, who are often too busy or too lazy to read beyond the headlines, the tragedy of the commons is best illustrated by the introduction in 1944 of 29 reindeer onto a remote island in the Bering Strait.  Surveys revealed that in 1966 only 47 remained of the 6000 seen in 1963, and now no reindeer live on St. Matthew Island that was briefly their paradise.  “Boom and bust” we say and move on. 

Hardin’s message was that education must not only give us the skills of literacy and numeracy but also ecolacy.

“A merely literate person may raise no question when a journalist speaks of ‘the inexhaustible wealth of the sea’. The numerate person, by contrast, asks for figures and rates. The ecolate person knows that we can never do merely one thing. any intrusion into nature has numerous effects, many of which are unpredictable”. 

Ecolacy asks the question “and then what?”

In 2009 Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on how people in small communities around the world managed common resources, concluding that when natural resources are pooled and have shared ownership, the rules for managing those resources evolve over time in a way both economically and ecologically sustainable provided that decision-making be transparent and democratic. 

The wise teachings of Ostrom and Hardin should guide decisions on the Murray Darling commons. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring from 1962 and Al Gore’s first book Earth in the Balance, published in 1992, are worth re-reading. 

Professor Tim Roberts is the director of the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment, University of Newcastle