Markus Stocker bio photo

Markus Stocker

Between information technology and environmental science with a flair for economics, the clarinet, and the world of soups and salads.

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Scarcity is perhaps one of the most fundamental characteristic of resources we pay for upon consumption. Breathable air is considered to be a common-pool resource, likely the main reason why up to now we have had open access to it. Free breathable air is, however, not a tautology, I think. Will it become a scarce resource, I’m confident, we will have to pay for it. I can picture the ad: “Premium breathable air for 99 cents / mol, only!”

Sounds like a horror scenario? Maybe. Imagine the too-big-to-let-fail breathable air global corporations. Tax payers would need to pay for a service – to breathe – and pay for their bailouts, if they want to breathe. “Give me your money, or die!” Interesting business model.

One of the problems with open access resources is unconstrained exploitation. For instance, according to Tucker [1] “the unconstrained exploitation associated with open access has been a notable factor in deforestation.” Polluting habits is an example for the atmosphere. Belonging it to everybody – and no one – I infringe no one’s property if I pollute nor am I rewarded if I don’t (or do so to a lower extent). As long as a polluting habit is in my (short-term) self-interest there is probably no incentive to restrain myself. We enjoy the benefits and externalize the costs.

Let’s assume we are neighbors. We both have a house with a garden. As it happens, my hobby is to be a crazy chemist with no idea about chemistry. I have a lab in my garden and on Saturdays I love to randomly mix deadly cocktails. Of course, my lab is far from safe and so some of my cocktails leak into the ground. This season, you notice that the tomatoes in your garden don’t grow. You wonder why and trace it back to my deadly chemicals which, unfortunately, did leak into your property. I think, you likely have legal means to stop this. Rightly so. As for land, perhaps one day we will not feel entitled to pollute the other’s cubit meters of atmosphere?

I think, I’m approaching the point at which I’ll give up the belief we might somewhat collectively agree on the value of free quality open access, the point at which I might start to believe property rights and market based systems are our best shot.

Update. I just had a bustling discussion with a lawyer who pointed out that my reasoning is flawed or outright wrong, at least w.r.t. property and the legal aspects. Note that this blog and its content has no demand for being complete, accurate, reasonable, even meaningful. While I agree, ontological accuracy is important, I’m afraid vagueness is inherent to language and, thus, to most (if not all) conceptual frameworks, is probably minimized only in mathematics and I’m quite sure it drammatically increases the farther a topic is from someone’s “domain of expertise.” The whole point of this blog is to improve accuracy and understanding. Each blog post provides a functionality to post comments, if you feel like to contribute.

[1] Catherine M. Tucker. Private Versus Common Property Forests: Forest Conditions and Tenure in a Honduran Community. Human Ecology, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1999.