The Misfit’s Fisheries

I’m wretchedly sick, and so I’m afraid this’ll be a rather simple-minded entry. Cough medicine and then to bed.

Kevin St. Martin, in his article “Making Space for Community Resource Management in Fisheries” (Annals of the Association of American Geographers), describes an alternative to the bioeconomic understanding of rational profit-seeking “individual fishermen operating on an open-access commons” (122) leading inevitably to Garrett Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’. St. Martin declares that his goal in the article is to open up alternative non-individually-oriented ways of seeing so that “The landscape of fishing communities, once made visible, suggests an opportunity for forms of area-based management that might facilitate community development rather than just individual prosperity” (122). After having read Hardin’s article scant days ago and kinda nodded my head along with it, St. Martin’s perspective turned me around some. Consider his contention that “To accept Hardin’s model, and indeed that of fisheries bioeconomics, we must imagine a homogenous common resource open to all and at the same time we must assume a particular individual subject who desires to maximize personal wealth” (125): there are certainly non-homogenous resources that are not open to all, and there are certainly individuals who don’t always desire to maximize personal wealth. Hardin was being pessimistic. (That word ‘tragedy’ is a bit of a tip-off, no?) So, to me, St. Martin’s critique — while true, as he compellingly demonstrates, for fisheries — doesn’t invalidate the problem Hardin perceives (and I don’t think Martin intended it to). There will always be individuals who are greedy assholes, and Hardin’s project is to problematize our society’s “tendency” inherited from Adam Smith “to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society”.

This actually seems to me to be somewhat in line with St. Martin’s critique of the way “the reduction of agency to the individual subject — the ‘fisherman’ — displaces to the periphery any role for alternative subjects, such as ‘the community,’ to mitigate tragedy”, and furthermore, “the assumed homogenous commons makes any notion of an alternative space, such as community territory, equally foreign” (125). But maybe I’ve been hitting the Robitussin too hard. Hardin and St. Martin seem to me to come from different angles to reach the same conclusion about the commons: the community can and does and should enforce certain ways of acting in relation to the commons, precisely because the lives of those in the community are interconnected by local bonds of need, obligation, reciprocity, altruism, and other motivating factors. In fact, Hardin’s contention (emphasis his) that “the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed” and subsequent example that “Using the commons as a cesspool does not harm the general public under frontier conditions, because there is no public; the same behavior in a metropolis is unbearable” might seem to stand as a confirmation of St. Martin’s implicit notion that value and management can be local phenomena. Or, to use St. Martin’s own language, “communities often form around processes of cooperation. . . and can even act as the basis for more formal forms of resource management that both avoid depletion of resources and sustain their equitable distribution”; “many of [these processes] have important spatial components” to the point where “local environmental knowledge and processes of territorialization are vital to community management of common resources” (139).

St. Martin’s project to set up an alternative to the construction of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, one that rests on different and more hopeful assumptions, seems useful. There’s got to be room for hope, for the possibility of altruism. And yet my temperament inclines me to agree when Hardin describes “any instance in which society appeals to an individual exploiting a commons to restrain himself for the general good — by means of his conscience” as producing “a selective system that works toward the elimination of conscience from the race”. I can’t help but think of Flannery O’Connor’s character The Misfit, in the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: “‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'” (A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.)

The Misfit’s Fisheries

6 thoughts on “The Misfit’s Fisheries

  • December 11, 2003 at 10:45 pm

    Have you read any of Elinor Ostrom’s books on common resources, e.g. Governing the Commons?

  • December 15, 2003 at 4:15 pm

    No, I haven’t — what sort of perspective is Ostrom coming from?

    I have to say, I was interested to see Shoshana Zuboff on your list of recent reviews — her 1988 In the Age of the Smart Machine seemed to me to do some really interesting stuff anticipating the tech-will-change-consciousness work of Sherry Turkle et al., only with a much more cautious (and intelligently so, to my mind) or perhaps even cautionary perspective.

  • December 22, 2003 at 3:59 am

    What I’ve read of Ostrom’s work: descriptions of actual, generations-old common resources and how they’re managed. I remember a lot of irrigation works, examples from several continents, and the social/religious/political systems to share out the work and the rewards differed quite a lot. Most of them were under stress from outside and some were more resilient than others.

    I think that was some of the first solid explanation of why “the tragedy of the commons” is a) not inevitable and b) a really poor choice of name. She’s written a lot since then, I think she is now a Name on co-written books, but I haven’t kept up.

    I was actually looking for …Smart Machine, but it was out and the library had this later book instead. I’ll try again, but I might just be completely out of phase with her writing.

    I like your blog because, of all the writers who read… I don’t even know what it’s called; very reflexive and in danger of equivocation… I get the best sense that there is an actual subject under discussion from you. Someday I may understand a question.

  • January 1, 2004 at 9:54 pm

    Hm. I think such a “solid explanation” would certainly help me some, largely because I share much of Hardin’s pessimism about the way people will act on their own, but intensely dislike his Malthusian perspective, and so hope to perhaps find some non-individually-based concrete economic understanding of how it might be “not inevitable”. Thanks for the recommendation: definitely have to check it out.

  • January 2, 2004 at 6:13 pm

    If you’re willing to sign in at Amazon, “Search Inside”
    Governing the Commons : The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action
    for Alanya; pp. 18-20 describe “An Empirical Alternative” to the tragedy, or Leviathan, or privatization.

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