Saturday, December 23, 2006

Tragedy of the (not so) Common Goat

Getting back to the economics, the fate of the Cashmere jumper provides an excellent case study of the old "Tragedy of the Commons" theory. Check your stockings for Cashmere this Christmas and remember the costs ;-)

Thanks to Treehugger for the hat tip

Cashmere: Sustainable Fiber or Environmental Disaster?

The Good News first
In theory, cashmere is the TreeHugger's ideal natural fiber. Knit or woven, it produces long-lasting garments. Quality cashmere will not pill and will keep its form for years, even generations, getting softer the more it is used. Knit garments can be hand-washed, no dry-cleaning impacts. The goats which are the source of cashmere fiber may be sheared or combed, but research suggests that combing results in better yield and less "loss" due to goats injuring each other as they huddle for warmth in the last blustery spring days. Goats which are properly kept and combed should not tweak the conscience of all but the most extreme animal protectionist (who will suggest a petroleum-based alternative for equal warmth and breathability, which has its own drawbacks). And now cashmere is so cheap, everyone can benefit from this fiber that is 8 times warmer than wool, stores without wrinkles and modulates its insulating capacity based on humidity (so you are never too warm but always warm enough). Is there a catch?

Now the Bad News (without which no economist would be happy):
Indeed, there is a catch. Cashmere is a textbook study in the Tragedy of the Commons*, which describes the inevitable outcome of a capitalistic market economy where the resource costs are not fully calculated in the production costs. This is the case in China today, where desertification and increasingly severe dust storms arise from the overpopulation of goats, eating the grasslands bare and piercing the protective topsoils with their hooves. Goats consume over 10% of their body weight daily in roughage, eating to very close to the roots and stripping bark from seedlings, preventing the regrowth of trees. When hungry, goats will eat the fur of their neighbors, down to the skin, as pictured above. (Photo: enviroactivist)

An excellent article in the Chicago Tribune documents cashmere's true cost. Millions of goats are farmed on land suitable for only a fraction of the population. The farmers are only beginning to glimpse the reality that their cash boom-crop is so unsustainable that the balance is tipping in front of their very eyes.

The enviroactivist link is worth reading for some excellent "on the ground reporting" from China and some good accompanying photographs.

Tragedy of the Commons 1968 paper from the aptly named "dieoff.org" here. A Christmas classic.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Indeed, a christmas classic. As for the optimum size of the population, I wonder if you are aware of this:-

Research on the time series correlation between the evolution of the size of the human brain and the size of community groups has shown that the optimum size of a community is 150.

This is illustrated with religeous communities in the USA whose population is remarkably static around this level.

On to my own thoughts....

The reason that 150 is such a good number is that it is a trade off between the "political capacity" of the human brain and economics of scale/safety in numbers.

I wonder if the political efficiency of these communities leads to fewer problems with "the commons". Even if there were problems with the commons, I think it is very likely that the institutional arrangements in such communities promote highly efficient internalisation.

However, if 150 is the solution I suppose the obvious question is, how many 150s?