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Dear Ryan: The tragedy of the Yukon's commons

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Ryan Leef, Member of Parliament for Yukon

Dear Ryan,

            The Tragedy of the Commons is a famous paper published in the magazine, Science, in 1968. In it, ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote about the finite resources of the planet and the impossibility of protecting those common resources without government intervention through regulations. Hardin was mainly concerned with the need for population control.  But he also believed that the same principles should be applied to the protection of the environment as a commons, from excesses by industry.

Hardin studied English feudal societies where groups of commoners shared unregulated access to pastureland or "commons." 

While this practice was beneficial in the short-term, problems arose as populations grew. There is a limit to how many cows can graze one pasture before it is ruined. Yet, who in a group of farmers will voluntarily reduce their use of a commonly held resource? The first to do so will suffer personal economic consequences while the indifferent will profit until such a time comes that all suffer. 

Hardin believed that the solution to this problem lay in politics and that commonly held resources must be protected by regulations to ensure sustainability and fairness.

Crown land is our commons.

This year a Haines Junction woodcutter was fined for throwing buckets of water on a hibernating bear.  This act of cruelty was a way to get around regulations that prohibited him from harvesting wood in the vicinity of a bear den.  He believed he was entitled to do this. Most Yukoners agree that the laws that saw the woodcutter fined are fair.

The controversy over the land use plan for the Peel River Watershed is broadly divisive.  First Nations with historic claims to the region wish to use this land for traditional cultural and harvesting practices. Outfitters say that their businesses will be ruined if large areas of the Peel are opened up to mining.  Both of these groups say that, while their own activities leave little or no footprint, intensive mining and oil extraction will permanently harm the animals, the land and the waters.  Many Yukoners, with no financial stake in the Peel, say that this special place warrants protection. They all insist that we should leave the Peel pristine for future generations.  

Some in the mining industry believe that they are entitled to mine this and all commonly held lands in the Yukon.  They claim that the Peel River Watershed Final Plan, which bans development in 80 per cent of the region and prohibits highway construction, will harm their ability to make a decent living and contribute to the Yukon economy. They dismiss environmental concerns as being of less importance than their right to make money.

It is clear that Hardin didn't foresee a world where corporations and industries could have so much influence that they literally own even so-called democratic governments.  Governments owned by industries will devise laws and regulations that have little to do with protecting the commons and everything to do with protecting the economic interests of their masters. 

Harden compared fair regulation of the commons to a game of Tic-Tac-Toe where all players understand the game perfectly. "I can win only by giving a radical meaning to the word 'win.' I can hit my opponent over the head; or I can drug him; or I can falsify the records." Cheat, in other words. 

That the Yukon Party government didn't intervene during the seven-year consultative process for the Peel River Watershed Final Plan reveals that they didn't believe they could prevail through honest negotiated means.  So they attempted to replace the Peel River Watershed Final Plan with their own mining-friendly plan after the fact. 

Bill S-6, designed to undermine both environmental protections and First Nations treaty powers, is another scheme by two levels of government to place the economic interests of the resource extraction sector over all others. This bill has nothing to do with fairness or sustainability in the commons. 

We have now reached the Rubicon with regards to climate change.  The international scientific community has told us that there will be unavoidable and severe consequences in the near future due to the burning of fossil fuels. Even worse is to come to the whole world commons if we don’t reduce our carbon footprint very soon.

Will Canada, under your Conservative government, voluntarily stand up to the powerful fossil fuel lobby and reduce Canada's carbon emissions?  

How apt that Hardin's paper on the commons is referred to as a "tragedy."

Image: Wikimedia Commons


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