Typical cow reaction to economics lecture
Typical cow reaction to economics lecture


Several years ago, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ran an ad campaign to raise awareness of animals that might go extinct because of human consumption. Their argument that our desire for consumer products has driven numerous species to the brink of annihilation is worth serious consideration, and its a problem that economists have wrestled with for decades. Unfortunately for PETA, however, one of their ads featured an animal that most people know has zero chance of going extinct any time soon: the cow.

Which raises the question: Why not?

After all, few animals provide more consumer products than the cow. Elephants are endangered for their ivory, ocelots for their fur. Why then are cows flourishing while animals with much better natural defenses succumb to the pressures of human industry?

In order to really get to the heart of this question, we'll need to explore some key ideas in modern economics. We'll also need to talk about cows. Moo.

Part 1: Tragedy of the

Commons, Privatization, Regulations, and Cows

Cows Gone Wild! (With Food)

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin published one of the first known economics articles that dealt explicitly with cows. In his article, he describes a hypothetical situation in which a common grazing area is shared by numerous ranchers. Historically, this was considered a standard practice in many areas, much in the way our modern society provides parks and nature preserves for the benefit of all.

Hardin noticed that there was a problem, however, when numerous ranchers shared a single parcel of land. Each individual rancher, he claimed, would have an incentive to continue growing the size of his herd. If the rancher had his own land, the decision to increase the size of the herd would be more difficult, as each addition risked overgrazing the land, which would cause the entire herd to suffer.

However, because this cost was shared amongst all the ranchers, while the benefit of the extra cow went to only one rancher, each rancher independently would make the decision to continuall
y increase the size of his herd, right up until the common area was inhospitable, and all ranchers simultaneously watched their cows starve.

Because this tragedy was directly connected to the use of a common area, Hardin called it the Tragedy of the Commons (catchy name, eh?). While Hardin was not an economist, this idea has been pivotal in providing an example of how many individuals can make a rational decision that results in an irrational (or at least, sub-optimal) outcome. Solving this problem has long been a central challenge to economists and policymakers ever since.

So, what the heck does this have to do with our question?

Private Solutions

Regulatory Solutions

Part 2: Buffalo, Cows, and Elephants (oh my!)

The 1870 Buffalo Massacre

What We Can Learn From Cows (moo)

Modern Elephant Herds

Part 3: What You Just Learned About Parks and Recreation!

Ways of Dealing With Congestion

Implications for Parks, Trailways, and Waterways

Implications for Fishermen and Hunters

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