I confess that I’ve never really thought deeply about the Tragedy of the Commons — it’s a story that we are all told early, and superficially, it seems to make a lot of sense. Sure, we have to worry that a shared resource might be exploited by selfish individuals. We have to be concerned about free riders. But do we really? And why is it that somehow the blame always falls on the weakest, poorest members of society? So I read Garrett Hardin’s original essay from 1968, and realized…it’s dreck. Why has this thing been so influential? It’s entirely about population control, nudging around the edges of eugenics, and yuck, I realized that the people who think this is great stuff tend to be the wealthy and deluded Libertarians. Look at this:
If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line–then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.
In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.
Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the United Nations. In late 1967, some 30 nations agreed to the following: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.”
Oooh, ‘ware the improvident. They might use overbreeding to aggrandize themselves! I’ve never felt that way. It seems to me that those gigantic families are harming themselves, perpetuating self-destructive myths at best, and reducing resources to their own children. Those children aren’t cows, property that they can use to seize an unfair share of the commons; they are independent, educable individuals who, if given the opportunity, could learn to be cooperative members of society and who would see that their own self-interest is not served by dropping a baby every year.
Hardin’s own example of herdsmen overgrazing a shared pasture is full of limiting assumptions — his herdsmen not only fail to cooperate in managing a shared resource, they don’t even talk to each other. And this is a shared myth used to justify privatization and control of basically everything in the world?
What prompted me to dig into the source material was an excellent article on Hardin and his “tragedy” by Matto Mildenberger. Humans actually do not lack cooperative management tools; we don’t need authoritarian intervention to save us from ourselves.
But the facts are not on Hardin’s side. For one, he got the history of the commons wrong. As Susan Cox pointed out, early pastures were well regulated by local institutions. They were not free-for-all grazing sites where people took and took at the expense of everyone else.
Many global commons have been similarly sustained through community institutions. This striking finding was the life’s work of Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics (technically called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel). Using the tools of science—rather than the tools of hatred—Ostrom showed the diversity of institutions humans have created to manage our shared environment.
Of course, humans can deplete finite resources. This often happens when we lack appropriate institutions to manage them. But let’s not credit Hardin for that common insight. Hardin wasn’t making an informed scientific case. Instead, he was using concerns about environmental scarcity to justify racial discrimination.
About that last bit — yeah, Hardin was a nasty character, but his nastiness isn’t the reason we should reject his myth. It’s because he was wrong.
Hardin was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamophobe. He is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a known white nationalist. His writings and political activism helped inspire the anti-immigrant hatred spilling across America today.
And he promoted an idea he called “lifeboat ethics”: since global resources are finite, Hardin believed the rich should throw poor people overboard to keep their boat above water.
People who revisit Hardin’s original essay are in for a surprise. Its six pages are filled with fear-mongering. Subheadings proclaim that “freedom to breed is intolerable.” It opines at length about the benefits if “children of improvident parents starve to death.” A few paragraphs later Hardin writes: “If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” And on and on. Hardin practically calls for a fascist state to snuff out unwanted gene pools.
Or build a wall to keep immigrants out. Hardin was a virulent nativist whose ideas inspired some of today’s ugliest anti-immigrant sentiment. He believed that only racially homogenous societies could survive. He was also involved with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a hate group that now cheers President Trump’s racist policies. Today, American neo-Nazis cite Hardin’s theories to justify racial violence.
It’s always useful to the powers-that-be to claim that a crisis is inevitable, and that it’s all due to unavoidable Human Nature, because that obscures where the blame really lies: in the hands of a corrupt, rich few who have used their power and wealth to override the potential of the many.
…rejecting Hardin’s diagnosis requires us to name the true culprit for the climate crisis we now face. Thirty years ago, a different future was available. Gradual climate policies could have slowly steered our economy towards gently declining carbon pollution levels. The costs to most Americans would have been imperceptible.
But that future was stolen from us. It was stolen by powerful, carbon-polluting interests who blocked policy reforms at every turn to preserve their short-term profits. They locked each of us into an economy where fossil fuel consumption continues to be a necessity, not a choice.
You can find more on that anti-corporate perspective in this video from Mexie:
We’re not going to solve climate change or any of the other global problems harming humanity until we claw down the billionaires from their perches and enact laws that control their greed.