Editor’s Note: The following guest opinion was written by Alice Wellborn, a former educator and member of the Transylvania County Board of Education
The Tragedy of the Commons illustrates how individuals, acting rationally in their own self-interest, can damage a common resource.
William Forster Lloyd, a 19th century economist, wrote an essay that provides the iconic example. The “commons” in an English village was the jointly held, open access grazing land. If the villagers grazed their animals sustainably, often through an unspoken honor system, the commons continued to serve as a village resource for all.
But what happened if a few villagers prioritized their individual economic self-interest and grazed too many of their animals on the commons?
Their decision economically benefited them individually, but the resulting degradation of the common resource was a problem shared by everyone. From the individual point of view, it’s a short-term success. From the community point of view, it’s a disaster.
Other examples of the Tragedy of the Commons include overfishing, air pollution, the great garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean and the water crisis in the American West.
Natural resources, like air and water, are a “commons.” So are natural environments, such as state and national parks, that are maintained for the enjoyment of all. Communities share resources that are jointly owned and accessible to all, including public schools, public libraries, parks, playing fields, roads and sidewalks. Neglect, lack of accountability and decisions based on convenience, as well as individual economic self-interest, often cause overuse and degradation of a shared resource.
Transylvania County, blessed with abundant natural resources, is not immune to the tragedy of the commons.
Our natural and community resources are adversely affected by our success as a tourist destination, just as our economic health as a community is positively supported by that same success.
Citizens often remark that Pisgah National Forest is “loved to death.” It can take 45 minutes to drive out of the forest on a summer afternoon because of the traffic. Trails are busy and in poor repair. Picnic areas are trashy, and cars are parked up and down the side of the road. Peace and quiet can be hard to come by.
DuPont State Recreational Forest shares the same problems.
DuPont’s famous waterfalls, accessible bike trails, and amenities make it an attractive destination, but its popularity comes at a price. When people found out that they could see the elusive blue ghost fireflies in DuPont, for example, visitors trampled the habitat.
The streets of downtown Brevard are packed with cars and visitors from May to October. Parking is a nightmare. Everyone entering Transylvania County, residents and visitors alike, drives through a long strip of traffic, fast food restaurants, and stoplights.
Housing is an issue for young people and lower wage workers, including new teachers and county employees. The median price for a house in Transylvania County is now $403,000. An apartment costs at least $1,000/month – and a long-term rental is hard to find. The availability of housing, particularly workforce housing, is a community resource that has been drastically depleted in our county.
American economist Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her work on the sustainability of shared natural resources through cooperative governance by users. Our region is fortunate to have non-profits that focus on natural resources and sustainability. The Pisgah Area Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association works to build, maintain and repair mountain bike trails. Friends of Pisgah National Forest and Friends of DuPont Forest provide volunteer labor and raise money to help maintain and protect the forests. Conserving Carolina protects and restores our natural resources.
Other community resources, however, require planning and protection by our local elected officials, and the time is now.
Housing, traffic, parking, protection of the natural amenities that we all love – all these things fall squarely in the lap of City Council and the Board of Commissioners. The City Council is already working on many of these issues. What do the county commissioners plan to do? The community needs to know.