The Great Plains
The “tragedy of the laissez faire commons” involves a conflict of resources between individual interests and the common good. In this case, the millions of acres of the west were publicly owned and therefore belonged to everyone. Ranching emerged “as an institution in the southern part of Texas during the 1860s” (Merchant 310). The question with ranching was how long could the grasslands be sustained? This was answered through the complete disaster which was American livestock ranching during its first quarter of a century. Many entrepreneurs came to the American west with “no tribal headmen to guide them, no ancient parchments to spell out their rights and responsibilities, and little to no knowledge of the landscapes they were invading” (Merchant 311). These factors caused the overgrazing of the grasslands by livestock. According to Granville Stuart, an early pioneer of the west, “in the fall of 1883, there was not a buffalo remaining of the range, and the antelope, elk, and deer were indeed scarce” (Merchant 311). In the span of a few years most of the wild animals had gone extinct, and in their place were 600,000 head of cattle. By 1888 due to severe winters and overgrazing, “the ranching industry was in ruins” (Merchant 311). Since there were no limits to the number of cattle and the land that could be occupied, everyone had an incentive to consumer as much grass as they could in order to increase profits. However, in the long run this system was unsustainable as it led to the disappearance of the grasslands. Due to the events of the 1880s, the United States government decided that it would be better if government bureaucrats doled out the land and kept strict watch on the livestock of ranchers.
Based on what I have read, it seems as if capitalism is the primary cause for environmental degradation on the Plains. If the Plains were settled by subsistence farms rather than ranchers, it is unlikely that the population of the wildlife and grasses would have plummeted so dramatically. Since private property rights largely did not exist in the west, each rancher had the mindset of raising as much livestock as possible in order to turn a larger profit. In turn, this led to the extremely rapid degradation of the Plains. Subsistence farmers would most likely have only looked to provide for themselves which would have led to a more sustainable use of the land. However, if capitalism was managed properly, I believe there would not have been a crisis in the 1880s. If the government had established the National Grazing Service in the 1800s, there could have been a balance between profits and conservation.
Merchant, Carolyn. American Environmental History: an Introduction. Columbia Univ. Press, 2007.