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Governing Everest: Tragedy of the Commons at the Top of the World

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 19 June 2013

Lines up to four hours. Piles of garbage and human waste. Dead bodies by the side of the route. Fights between climbing groups. Welcome to Mt. Everest in 2013, and a tragedy of the commons at the top of the world.

A recent article by National Geographic highlights the increasing crowds and environmental problems on Everest. I've never climbed Everest(and don't plan to...), and I'm betting that Elinor Ostrom and Garret Hardin have not climbed there either. But Everest highlights core issues in environmental governance that they would surely recognize.

There is no doubt Everest is in the throes of the Tragedy of the Commons. Instead of the race to fish that happens when fisheries are collapsing, it is the race to climb. Individual climbers and groups impose social costs on each other when they cause delays on the routes, or harm the environment with trash and human waste. When all of the climbers ignore these costs, they are spread to everybody at a level that is way too high--the resources of Everest are being overexploited. In such situations, groups competing for the resources often will fight--just like fights between fishermen over fishing grounds. At 29,029 feet, these costs can kill.

Solving the problem requires cooperation, and getting all of the international groups of climbers coming from two countries to use Everest resources at a more sustainable level. There are regulations in place for Everest, and although I don't know all the on-the-ground details, the regulations are heavily oriented towards climbing fees. And the evidence suggest that the regulations governing things like garbage are not well enforced. The fact the Everest spans an international border in countries with shaky national environmental institutions only complicates the matter.

It is easy to predict that there are many informal norms customized to specific base camps and climbing routes, which would be socially communicated among climbing groups (sherpas, guides, experienced climbers, government liaison officers). The informal norms would probably shape where people camp, when they climb, where garbage is put etc. Would be a fascinating study but somebody besides me will have to do it.

Regardless of the current governance, the National Geographic article goes on to recommend some changes that would help fix Everest problems: fewer permits, smaller teams, certify outfitters, require experience, leave no trace (there are garbage regulations already but they appear weak or not enforced), and remove bodies. Many of these recommendations could have come straight from the work of Elinor Ostrom herself, in her famous and Nobel-prize winning book "Governing the Commons". Well, except for the bodies part. I doubt she every really thought that removing bodies would have to be governed by rules. But at extreme altitude, the symptoms of the commons are even more tragic.