Driving in Nairobi calls for an earthly dose of manual agility; a biological quantity of intestinal resilience and an eerie state of tranquillity and grace. If you want Nairobians to complain about something, ask them how bad their morning and evening commute is during the weekdays. It can be just as bad during the weekends. Mr. Smith, the CEO, encourages his employees to contribute towards reducing environmental degradation. While he expects all his employees to use public transport, he himself uses private transport, because he thinks his contribution to air pollution would be insignificant. The concern is that the government will spend money on glitzy elevated highways, which encourage car ownership, while the matatus that use lesser roads to pick up and drop off are neglected.
Systematically speaking, Nairobi’s traffic woes are a fitting example of systems trap known as the tragedy of the commons. The commons is a term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest. What is the tragedy of the commons? It is an economic problem where each individual attempts to gain the greatest benefit from a given resource because he or she is acting solely out of self-interest, while disregarding the effects on society as a whole. The pursuit of individual self-interest is often not good for social efficiency leading to the long term depletion of resources.
In 1968, an American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin, wrote an article exploring the social problems on human population growth and the use of natural resources. He cautioned that “the inherent logic of the commons ruthlessly generates tragedy”, adding despondently that, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.” Hardin used a metaphor of villagers adding more and more cows to their common pasture capturing the very essence of the problem of overexploitation of commons. The farmer who added an extra cow gained an advantage over other farmers in his village but this decision also led to a jeopardised pasture.
The world is full of similar non-cooperative and unsustainable illustrations in which individuals behave in a selfish way struggling for survival and resulting in overexploited commons: fisheries, forests, knowledge and intellectual property, urban planning, transportation and traffic jams and air quality, etc.
Air pollution across some parts of the world are reaching atrocious levels. Moreover, air is no respecter of international borders. Greenhouse gases present in vehicle emissions accelerate global warming and climate change. By end of 2017, Kenya reported 226,668 new registrations of motor vehicles. This was a 31% increase from 173,044 in 2012. With an ever increasing population, motorists have no way of stopping others from adding more vehicles on the road indicating non-excludability. According to World Bank, 53% proportion of carbon dioxide emissions is produced from transportation in Kenya with nearly 5,000 Kenyans dying of air pollution causes annually.
There is no silver bullet for the open access resources. The world leaders’ ‘cows’ are, as they see it, grazing in their own private pastures and safe from the tragedy of the commons. So more people pile on the road and continue to use the resource until it’s quick access is depleted. Little do they know that soon the waste generated by seven billion people will overflow into their private properties.
As people sit in traffic, suffering from dumb mobility, to what magnitude are they participants in a tragedy of the commons?
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. But to avert the tragedy of the commons for our atmosphere, we need to use a carbon offset calculator to find ways we can contribute to green activities to ameliorate our fuel consumption and carbon dioxide production. Otherwise, tragedy awaits.