A Parable for our Time — With apologies to Garrett Hardin
by David Schwartz
This essay was published in the CHALT newsletter, November 2014
Once upon a time, a community of shepherds grazed their flocks on a lush meadow—a “common”— just outside the quaint village where they lived. The shepherds had no formal schooling, but they understood that there was a limit to how many sheep the meadow could support—that it had a finite carrying capacity. Because the shepherds wanted to remain on the land where their ancestors were buried and where they, their children, and their grandchildren had been born and raised, they were careful not to let their flocks get too large. As a result, the sheep’s grazing never exceeded the meadow’s ability to regenerate itself year after year. This required some fairly sophisticated planning and coordination, but it worked.
It came to pass, however, that an entrepreneurial shepherd had an innovative idea: He realized that while he alone would reap the full benefit of adding an additional sheep to his flock, the cost that the additional ewe would impose on the meadow would be shared by the entire community. He reasoned that, because his own personal benefit from adding a sheep exceeded his own personal cost of doing so, it was only rational for him to enlarge his flock, which he therefore proceeded to do.
The other shepherds, seeing the innovator grow rich and fat, and finding the logic of his argument unassailable, began to follow suit. Before long, the once spacious meadow grew congested with sheep, especially at peak grazing times. The meadow’s soil, trampled on by so many hooves, became compacted and could no longer absorb the rainfall, so that when the heavy rains came, great torrents eroded the landscape and flooded the homes of those shepherds unlucky enough to be living at lower elevations of the village.
A few of the older shepherds, alarmed at the deterioration of the meadow, suggested that maybe the new, more intensive grazing practice wasn’t such a good idea. Perhaps, they said, the community ought to sit down together, as in olden days, and come up with a plan for how to prevent the meadow on which they all depended from turning into a barren muddy wasteland.
But the shepherds who owned the largest flocks, and therefore benefited most from high-density grazing, mocked the elders and their old-fashioned ways. Intoxicated by their newfound wealth and a sense of limitless possibility, they stood up before the village council and said, “High density grazing benefits us all. Have we not, through our industry, filled the public coffers with new tax revenues?” Yet when the people actually went and inspected the coffers, they found them bare.
Sensing a shift in the public mood, the high-density grazing boosters met in a chamber behind closed doors and plotted how to grow support for more intensive land use. With increasing desperation, they exhorted the villagers to pay no heed to what they called the “small vocal minority.” But the other shepherds found that what the elders said made sense, a wiser and more sociable kind of sense than the innovator’s narrow economic calculus.
So they planned and coordinated. They revived the old ways and respected the land and its limits. Slowly but surely, the barren patches in the meadow grew lush again, the soil stabilized, and the earth soaked up the rain. The sheep, though fewer in number, grew healthier and more productive. And the shepherds looked at the meadow and the village and at all that they had restored, and said that it was good.