ESG and Climate Risk

Navigating the Tyranny of Small Decisions: A Comprehensive Examination of Policy Challenges

  • The concept rooted in prioritizing individual interests over the common good, highlighted by historical philosophers like Aristotle and Thucydides, was later coined by Alfred E. Kahn with the example of the railway system’s shutdown in Ithaca.
  • William Odham extended the concept to environmental issues, emphasizing cumulative impact. Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of Commons” warns of common resource exploitation due to individual gains.
  • Plastic pollution, urban flooding, and groundwater mismanagement are challenges resulting from the tyranny of small decisions.
Origin of the Tyranny of Small Decisions

Historical philosophers and economists, such as Thomas Mann and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, recognized the consequences of short-sighted decisions made without considering long-term implications.  The concept of the “tyranny of small decisions” has deep historical roots, with ancient philosophers like Thucydides and Aristotle highlighting the human tendency to prioritize individual interests over the common good.

The concept of the tyranny of small decisions, as articulated by Aristotle and later refined by economist Alfred E. Kahn, delves into the intricate dynamics of shared resources and the impact of individual choices on the common good. Aristotle observed that as more individuals partake in the utilization of a communal resource, the care for it diminishes, as personal interests often take precedence unless directly affected.

"Alfred E. Kahn, in 1966, introduced the term "Tyranny of small decisions," emphasizing how seemingly rational choices can collectively lead to irreversible destruction."

A poignant illustration of this phenomenon unfolded in Ithaca, New York, during the 1950s with the decline of the railway system. Despite the reliability of the railway, commuters made individual choices in favor of alternative transportation modes, resulting in the railway’s closure due to diminishing usage and revenue. While each decision seemed rational in isolation, the cumulative effect contradicted the community’s long-term interests, especially during adverse weather conditions. This example transcends economic realms, resonating in areas like environmental degradation, politics, and health outcomes.

Environmental Degradation and the Tyranny of Small Decisions

The environmentalist William Odham expanded the concept to environmental problems in 1982, emphasizing how the cumulative impact of small decisions contributes to environmental turmoil.

Natural resources, essential to all, including food, coal, and water, often fall prey to exploitation and degradation due to the tyranny of small decisions. Garrett Hardin’s 1968 paper introduced the analogy of the commons, portraying the escalating pressures on finite resources as human populations burgeon globally. The tragedy of the commons unfolds in shared resources, akin to sheep grazing land, where private management preserves value and herd health, while communal management leads to overpopulation and resource exploitation. This, according to Hardin, is an inevitable consequence of individual gains, resulting in detrimental outcomes for all.

The “Tragedy of Commons” asserts that individuals, pursuing self-interest, exploit shared resources, surpassing demand over supply, and culminating in overconsumption and resource depletion. Protecting commons has become an intricate challenge at local, national, and international levels. As individuals navigate their self-interest, a looming path to ruin unfolds. The interplay of human activities and climate-related factors intensifies catastrophic events with far-reaching consequences.

Cultural lake eutrophication, the decline of green turtle populations, and the threat to endangered species like polar bears and humpback whales further illustrate the hidden dangers of seemingly insignificant decisions. The continuous addition of domestic sewage, industrial outlets, and urban development leads to irreversible damage to productive lands, groundwater resources, and tropical forests.

"Historical examples, like the case of Chandola Lake in Gujarat, showcase how neglect and short-sighted decisions result in the loss of vital water bodies. The encroachment, pollution, and mismanagement of lakes in Ahmedabad exemplify the failure to incorporate natural drainage patterns and topography into urban planning, causing environmental havoc."

Climate change serves as a prominent example of the tyranny of small decisions, where incremental choices have led to profound and interconnected consequences, particularly in the context of the oceans. Despite being the largest habitat on Earth and a crucial system linked to human survival, the impact of increasing carbon dioxide emissions on the oceans has been overshadowed in the climate change discourse. The oceans, responsible for half of the planet’s oxygen production, climate regulation, and support for diverse ecosystems, have absorbed more than 93% of the heat added to the planet since the 1950s. However, this absorption comes at a cost manifested in rising ocean temperatures and increased acidification, evident in the melting Arctic Sea ice and coral bleaching.

Immediate action is imperative, utilizing a comprehensive approach encompassing mitigation, protection, restoration, and adaptation. The consequences of climate change extend beyond oceanic impacts, affecting precipitation patterns and leading to increased flooding risks, especially in Europe. Fluvial flooding from extended periods of increased rainfall and pluvial floods caused by intense cloudbursts poses threats, resulting in fatalities, affecting millions, and incurring substantial economic losses. Sea-level rise, another consequence of climate change, amplifies the risk of coastal flooding and erosion, impacting communities, infrastructure, businesses, and ecosystems.

The changing climate, characterized by altered rainfall patterns, increased evaporation, glacier melting, and rising sea levels, disrupts the availability of freshwater. More frequent and severe droughts, along with rising water temperatures, are anticipated to decrease water quality, fostering the growth of toxic algae and bacteria. This exacerbates the existing problem of water scarcity driven by human activities. A surge in cloudburst events is poised to further impact freshwater quality and quantity, as stormwater introduces untreated sewage into surface water.

Handling the tyranny of small decisions in the context of oceans and freshwaters presents numerous challenges, each with its unique set of complexities. Examining specific issues such as plastic pollution, urban flooding, and groundwater mismanagement highlights the difficulties faced in addressing these environmental concerns because of small decisions at local, national and international level.

Plastic Pollution in Oceans:
"Approximately 80% of marine litter consists of plastic, with over 6.5 million tons of plastic making its way into the ocean each year. Daily, a staggering 15,343 tons of waste is dumped into the South Asian seas, originating from 60 major cities in India. he pervasive usage of plastics in various aspects of our daily lives, such as consumer goods packaging and inexpensive fishing equipment, has played a significant role in exacerbating this problem. Additionally, the extensive trading activities in India, accounting for 95% of volume and 68% of value, contribute significantly to the issue."

Plastics permeate the marine ecosystem through diverse channels, encompassing insufficient waste disposal practices, illicit discharge of industrial waste, abandoned fishing nets, emission of plastic pollutants from cruise ships, and the abrasion of paints or varnish from vessels.

Challenge: Lack of Individual Accountability Plastic pollution in oceans is a classic example of the tyranny of small decisions. Millions of individuals worldwide contribute to this crisis through everyday choices such as single-use plastics, leading to vast accumulations in oceans. The challenge lies in holding individuals accountable for their actions, as the impact of each small decision collectively results in significant harm to marine ecosystems.

Individually, a person’s use of plastic straws, bottles, or packaging may seem inconsequential. However, the cumulative effect is the release of microplastics into the ocean, endangering marine life. Sea creatures, from tiny plankton to large whales, ingest these particles, disrupting ecosystems and posing long-term threats to biodiversity.

Urban Flooding:
"According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), urban flooding is responsible for approximately 50% of all flood-related disasters worldwide. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that by 2050, over 1 billion people in Asia could be affected by increased urban flooding. Jakarta, Indonesia, faces recurrent urban flooding due to a combination of sinking land, rising sea levels, and rapid urban development. "

Urban flooding is a critical issue arising from the inundation of urban areas due to excessive rainfall, inadequate drainage systems, or rapid urbanization. The problem is exacerbated by impermeable surfaces like roads and buildings, preventing water absorption. Urban flooding poses threats such as property damage, disruption of services, and environmental degradation, impacting both local communities and ecosystems.

Challenge: Tyranny of small decisions manifests in fragmented urban planning that often prioritizes short-term gains over long-term resilience. Uncoordinated decisions regarding infrastructure, poor drainage systems, inadequate stormwater management, and unchecked urban expansion contribute to urban flooding, impacting communities and infrastructure. Regulatory choices, such as favoring construction of impermeable surfaces, such as concrete pavements and buildings, over green spaces or prioritizing economic development without considering water drainage, result in a cumulative impact that puts urban areas at risk of increased surface runoff during heavy rainfall, overwhelming drainage systems. This, in turn, results in urban flooding, affecting neighborhoods and straining emergency services.

Groundwater Mismanagement:
"Groundwater mismanagement is a global concern, with several regions facing issues such as over-extraction, contamination, inadequate recharge and lack of regulation. A study published in Nature found that 44% of the world's major aquifers are under stress, experiencing more withdrawals than the natural recharge processes can sustain. The North China Plain, a major agricultural region, has been experiencing rapid depletion of groundwater due to excessive agricultural demands, threatening food security. "

Lack of regulations in groundwater usage is major hinderance as suggested by The World Bank reports that about 60% of the world’s groundwater use is not regulated.

Challenge: Unregulated Agricultural Practices coupled with weak regulatory frameworks exemplify the tyranny of small decisions in groundwater management. In Agriculture, farmers, driven by immediate needs and often unaware of long-term consequences, engage in unregulated practices such as excessive groundwater pumping and inadequate water conservation. Individually, farmers may view extracting groundwater as a necessary practice. However, the collective effect of widespread over-extraction leads to falling water tables, exacerbating the risk of saltwater intrusion. Situations like these not only jeopardize freshwater availability, increasing water stress, but also compromise agricultural productivity in the long run. Industrial and sewage discharge in parts of India have contaminated groundwater with harmful substances like arsenic and fluoride, impacting millions.

Other issues due to groundwater mismanagement like land subsidence as highlighted in example of Mexico City should not be overlooked.  Due to over-extraction of groundwater for urban and industrial use, Mexico City is sinking at an alarming rate leading to infrastructure damage and increased flood risks.

What is the overall challenge?

Limited Policy Enforcement- One overarching challenge in addressing the tyranny of small decisions in both oceans and freshwaters is the limited enforcement of comprehensive policies. Governments often struggle to regulate and enforce laws that target individual behaviors contributing to environmental degradation. Despite awareness of the environmental impact of plastic pollution, urban flooding, climate change, regulatory frameworks at local, national and international lack the capacity and synergy to control plastic production, groundwater overextraction in many regions. In the absence of stringent enforcement, individuals continue to make choices that collectively harm marine and freshwater ecosystems.

What is the road ahead?

To ensure sustainable freshwater and marine resource management and mitigate potential impacts on the economy and utilities, proactive measures are essential.

The UDA framework by the Maritime Research Centre provides a comprehensive model with both horizontal and vertical constructs, involving four key stakeholders: blue economy, maritime security, environment regulators, and science and technology. The horizontal construct outlines the allocation of assets to stakeholders, emphasizing technology and capacity building. Simultaneously, the vertical level establishes a hierarchical process that commences with identifying water risks, extracting relevant data through research, and proposing sustainable strategies, emphasizing collaboration among stakeholders. Implementing effective regulations through policy intervention, encouraging collaboration, investing in research and technology, and establishing monitoring mechanisms, integrated with the UDA framework, would contribute to sustainable water resource management. The focus is particularly on local, site-specific research and development to enhance indigenous capabilities through capacity and capability building. Leveraging by opening data centers further enhances transparency and supports data-driven decision-making in cooperative efforts.

Thus comprehensive measures, integrated with the UDA framework, shall contribute to sustainable water resource management, and effectively address challenges linked to the tyranny of decisions as follows-

Implement Effective Regulations through Policy Intervention:-  Enforce regulations to deter short-sighted decision-making in water resource management. Set limits on resource consumption, penalize harmful actions, and advocate responsible practices.

Align regulations with the UDA framework’s Outreach strategy for heightened awareness and compliance. Integrate open data centers for transparent reporting and data-driven regulatory decisions.

Encourage Collaboration and Cooperation:- Foster a collective responsibility mindset across individuals, communities, academia, and industries through engage strategy of UDA framework by conducting webinars for dialogue and shared decision-making processes to achieve water management goals. Leverage open data centers to share collaborative insights and support data-driven cooperative efforts.

Invest in Research and Innovation:-  Allocate resources for research and development focused on sustainable water practices and technologies. Support the discovery of alternative solutions minimizing negative impacts on collective well-being. Establish data centers to share research findings and facilitate data-driven innovations.

Establish Monitoring and Evaluation Mechanisms:- Implement robust monitoring and evaluation systems, including water reporting frameworks. Integrate these mechanisms into Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) schemes. Track the impact of individual decisions, like industrial water usage, through open data centers for informed decision-making.

Raise Awareness:- Prioritize public education on water consumption and pollution’s tyranny of decisions. Emphasize potential consequences, like water shortages, to instill a culture of long-term thinking. Employ educational campaigns, workshops, and public discussions for impactful outreach.

"In conclusion, managing the tyranny of small decisions concerning oceans and freshwaters requires a holistic approach that addresses individual behaviors, implements robust policies, and fosters collective responsibility. Overcoming these challenges necessitates a shift towards sustainable practices, increased public awareness, and coordinated efforts at local, national, and international levels."

Aradhya Kapoor

About Author

Aradhya Kapoor works in Research Fellow at the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune. She has completed her undergrads in Microbiology and Biochemistry from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She further completed her Masters in Life Science with core modules in Biochemistry and Immunology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

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