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The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons
by Ian Angus

Will shared resources always be misused and overused?  Is community
ownership of land, forests, and fisheries a guaranteed road to ecological
disaster?  Is privatization the only way to protect the environment and end
Third World poverty?  Most economists and development planners will answer
"yes" -- and for proof they will point to the most influential article ever
written on those important questions.

Since its publication in *Science* in December 1968, "The Tragedy of the
Commons" has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the
most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal.  It is
also one of the most-quoted: a recent Google search found "about 302,000"
results for the phrase "tragedy of the commons."

For 40 years it has been, in the words of a World Bank Discussion Paper,
"the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural
resource issues" (Bromley and Cernea 1989: 6).  It has been used time and
again to justify stealing indigenous peoples' lands, privatizing health care
and other social services, giving corporations "tradable permits" to pollute
the air and water, and much more.

Noted anthropologist Dr. G.N. Appell (1995: 34-5) writes that the article
"has been embraced as a sacred text by scholars and professionals in the
practice of designing futures for others and imposing their own economic and
environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have
incomplete understanding and knowledge."

Like most sacred texts, "The Tragedy of the Commons" is more often cited
than read.  As we will see, although its title sounds authoritative and
scientific, it fell far short of science.

*Garrett Hardin hatches a myth*

The author of "The Tragedy of the Commons" was Garrett Hardin, a University
of California professor who until then was best known as the author of a
biology textbook that argued for "control of breeding" of "genetically
defective" people (Hardin 1966: 707).  In his 1968 essay he argued that
communities that share resources inevitably pave the way for their own
destruction; instead of wealth for all, there is wealth for none.

He based his argument on a story about the commons in rural England.

(The term "commons" was used in England to refer to the shared pastures,
fields, forests, irrigation systems, and other resources that were found in
many rural areas until well into the 1800s.  Similar communal farming
arrangements existed in most of Europe, and they still exist today in
various forms around the world, particularly in indigenous communities.)

"Picture a pasture open to all," Hardin wrote.  A herdsmen who wants to
expand his personal herd will calculate that the cost of additional grazing
(reduced food for all animals, rapid soil depletion) will be divided among
all, but he alone will get the benefit of having more cattle to sell.**

Inevitably, "the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course
for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd."  But every
"rational herdsman" will do the same thing, so the commons is soon
overstocked and overgrazed to the point where it supports no animals at all.

Hardin used the word "tragedy" as Aristotle did, to refer to a dramatic
outcome that is the inevitable but unplanned result of a character's
actions.  He called the destruction of the commons through overuse a tragedy
not because it is sad, but because it is the*inevitable result of shared use
of the pasture*.  "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."

*Where's the Evidence?*

Given the subsequent influence of Hardin's essay, it's shocking to realize
that he provided *no evidence at all* to support his sweeping conclusions.
 He claimed that the "tragedy" was inevitable -- but he didn't show that it
had happened even once.

Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons:*self-regulation
by the communities involved*. One such process was described years earlier
in Friedrich Engels' account of the "mark," the form taken by commons-based
communities in parts of pre-capitalist Germany:

[T]he use of arable and meadowlands was under the supervision and direction
of the community. . . .

Just as the share of each member in so much of the mark as was distributed
was of equal size, so was his share also in the use of the "common mark."
 The nature of this use was determined by the members of the community as a
whole. . . .

At fixed times and, if necessary, more frequently, they met in the open air
to discuss the affairs of the mark and to sit in judgment upon breaches of
regulations and disputes concerning the mark.  (Engels 1892)

Historians and other scholars have broadly confirmed Engels' description of
communal management of shared resources.  A summary of recent research
concludes:

[W]hat existed in fact was not a "tragedy of the commons" but rather a
triumph: that for hundreds of years -- and perhaps thousands, although
written records do not exist to prove the longer era -- land was managed
successfully by communities.   (Cox 1985: 60)

Part of that self-regulation process was known in England as "stinting" --
establishing limits for the number of cows, pigs, sheep, and other livestock
that each commoner could graze on the common pasture.  Such "stints"
protected the land from overuse (a concept that experienced farmers
understood long before Hardin arrived) and allowed the community to allocate
resources according to its own concepts of fairness.

The only significant cases of overstocking found by the leading modern
expert on the English commons involved wealthy landowners who deliberately
put too many animals onto the pasture in order to weaken their much poorer
neighbors' position in disputes over the enclosure (privatization) of common
lands (Neeson 1993: 156).

Hardin assumed that peasant farmers are unable to change their behavior in
the face of certain disaster.  But in the real world, small farmers,
fishers, and others have created their own institutions and rules for
preserving resources and ensuring that the commons community survived
through good years and bad.

*Why Does the Herder Want More?*

Hardin's argument started with the unproven assertion that herdsmen always
want to expand their herds: "It is to be expected that each herdsman will
try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. . . .  As a rational
being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain."

In short, Hardin's conclusion was predetermined by his assumptions.  "It is
to be expected" that each herdsman will try to maximize the size of his herd
-- and each one does exactly that.  It's a circular argument that proves
nothing.

Hardin assumed that human nature is selfish and unchanging and that society
is just an assemblage of self-interested individuals who don't care about
the impact of their actions on the community.  The same idea, explicitly or
implicitly, is a fundamental component of mainstream (i.e., pro-capitalist)
economic theory.

All the evidence (not to mention common sense) shows that this is absurd:
people are social beings, and society is much more than the arithmetic sum
of its members.  Even capitalist society, which rewards the most anti-social
behavior, has not crushed human cooperation and solidarity.  The very fact
that for centuries "rational herdsmen" did not overgraze the commons
disproves Hardin's most fundamental assumptions -- but that hasn't stopped
him or his disciples from erecting policy castles on foundations of sand.

Even if the herdsman wanted to behave as Hardin described, he couldn't do so
unless certain conditions existed.

There would have to be a market for the cattle, and he would have to be
focused on producing for that market, not for local consumption.  He would
have to have enough capital to buy the additional cattle and the fodder they
would need in winter.  He would have to be able to hire workers to care for
the larger herd, build bigger barns, etc.  And his desire for profit would
have to outweigh his interest in the long-term survival of his community.

In short, Hardin didn't describe the behavior of herdsmen in pre-capitalist
farming communities -- he described the behavior of*capitalists operating in
a capitalist economy*.  The universal human nature that he claimed would
always destroy common resources is actually the profit-driven "grow or die"
behavior of corporations.

*Will Private Ownership Do Better?*

That leads us to another fatal flaw in Hardin's argument: in addition to
providing no evidence that maintaining the commons will inevitably destroy
the environment, he offered no justification for his opinion that
privatization would save it.  Once again he simply presented his own
prejudices as fact:

We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is
unjust -- but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment,
that anyone has invented a better system.  The alternative of the commons is
too horrifying to contemplate.  Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

The implication is that private owners will do a better job of caring for
the environment because they want to preserve the value of their assets.  In
reality, scholars and activists have documented scores of cases in which the
division and privatization of communally managed lands had disastrous
results.  Privatizing the commons has repeatedly led to deforestation, soil
erosion and depletion, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and the ruin
of ecosystems.

As Karl Marx wrote, nature requires long cycles of birth, development, and
regeneration, but capitalism requires short-term returns.

[T]he entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented towards the
most immediate monetary profits, stands in contradiction to agriculture,
which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of
life required by the chain of human generations.  A striking illustration of
this is furnished by the forests, which are only rarely managed in a way
more or less corresponding to the interests of society as a whole. . . .
(Marx 1998: 611n)

Contrary to Hardin's claims, a community that shares fields and forests has
a strong incentive to protect them to the best of its ability, even if that
means not maximizing current production, because those resources will be
essential to the community's survival for centuries to come.  Capitalist
owners have the opposite incentive, because they will not survive in
business if they don't maximize short-term profit.  If ethanol promises
bigger and faster profits than centuries-old rain forests, the trees will
fall.

This focus on short-term gain has reached a point of appalling absurdity in
recent best-selling books by Bjorn Lomborg, William Nordhaus, and others,
who argue that it is irrational to spend money to stop greenhouse gas
emissions today, because the payoff is too far in the future.  Other
investments, they say, will produce much better returns, more quickly.

Community management isn't an infallible way of protecting shared resources:
some communities have mismanaged common resources, and some commons may have
been overused to extinction.  But no commons-based community has
capitalism's built-in drive to put current profits ahead of the well-being
of future generations.

*A Politically Useful Myth*

The truly appalling thing about "The Tragedy of the Commons" is not its lack
of evidence or logic -- badly researched and argued articles are not unknown
in academic journals.  What's shocking is the fact that *this* piece of
reactionary nonsense has been hailed as a brilliant analysis of the causes
of human suffering and environmental destruction, and adopted as a basis for
social policy by supposed experts ranging from economists and
environmentalists to governments and United Nations agencies.

Despite being refuted again and again, it is still used today to support
private ownership and uncontrolled markets as sure-fire roads to economic
growth.

The success of Hardin's argument reflects its usefulness as a
pseudo-scientific explanation of global poverty and inequality, an
explanation that doesn't question the dominant social and political order.
 It confirms the prejudices of those in power: logical and factual errors
are nothing compared to the very attractive (to the rich) claim that the
poor are responsible for their own poverty.  The fact that Hardin's argument
also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a bonus.

Hardin's essay has been widely used as an ideological response to
anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and discontent among
indigenous and other oppressed peoples everywhere in the world.

Hardin's fable was taken up by the gathering forces of neo-liberal reaction
in the 1970s, and his essay became the "scientific" foundation of World Bank
and IMF policies, viz. enclosure of commons and privatization of public
property. . . .  The message is clear: we must never treat the earth as a
"common treasury."  We must be ruthless and greedy or else we will perish.
(Boal 2007)

In Canada, conservative lobbyists use arguments derived from Hardin's
political tract to explain away poverty on First Nations' reserves and to
argue for further dismantling of indigenous communities.  A study published
by the influential Fraser Institute urges privatization of reserve land:

[T]hese large amounts of land, with their attendant natural resources, will
never yield their maximum benefit to Canada's native people as long as they
are held as collective property subject to political management. . . .
 [C]ollective property is the path of poverty, and private property is the
path of prosperity.   (Fraser 2002: 16-17)

This isn't just right-wing posturing.  Canada's federal government, which
has refused to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples, announced in 2007 that it will "develop approaches to
support the development of individual property ownership on reserve" and
created a $300 million fund to do just that.

In Hardin's world, poverty has nothing to do with centuries of racism,
colonialism, and exploitation: poverty is inevitable and natural in all
times and places, the product of immutable human nature.  The poor bring it
on themselves by having too many babies and clinging to self-destructive
collectivism.

The tragedy of the commons is a useful political myth -- a
scientific-sounding way of saying that there is no alternative to the
dominant world order.

Stripped of excess verbiage, Hardin's essay asserted, without proof, that
human beings are helpless prisoners of biology and the market.  Unless
restrained, we will inevitably destroy our communities and environment for a
few extra pennies of profit.  There is nothing we can do can to make the
world better or more just.

In 1844 Friedrich Engels described a similar argument as a "repulsive
blasphemy against man and nature."  Those words apply with full force to the
myth of the tragedy of the commons.


*Works Cited*

Appell, G. N.  1993.  "Hardin's Myth of the Commons: The Tragedy of
Conceptual Confusions."<http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/archive/00002203/01/HARDIN.pdf>

Boal, Iain.  2007.  "Interview: Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty,
Apocalypse." <http://www.counterpunch.org/boal09112007.html>
*CounterPunch,* September
11, 2007.

Bromley, Daniel W. and Cernea Michael M.  1989.  "The Management of Common
Property Natural Resources: Some Conceptual and Operational
Fallacies."<http://www-wds.worldbank.org/servlet/main?menuPK=64187510&pagePK=64193027&piPK=64187937&theSitePK=523679&entityID=000178830_98101903572526>
  *World Bank Discussion Paper*.

Cox, Susan Jane Buck.  1985.  "No Tragedy on the
Commons."<http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/archive/00001319/01/buck_NoTragedy.pdf>
*Environmental Ethics 7*.

Engels, Friedrich.  1892.  "The
Mark."<http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1892/12/mark.htm>

Engels, Friedrich.  1844.  *Outlines of a Critique of Political
Economy<http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/df-jahrbucher/outlines.htm>
*.

Fraser Institute.  2002.  *Individual Property Rights on Canadian Indian
Reserves*<http://www.fraserinstitute.org/commerce.web/product_files/property-rights.pdf>
.

Hardin, Garrett. 1966.  *Biology: Its Principles and Implications*.  Second
edition.  San Francisco. W.H. Freeman & Co.

Hardin, Garrett.  1968.  "The Tragedy of the
Commons."<http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/articles/art_tragedy_of_the_commons.html>

Marx, Karl.  [1867] 1998.  *Marx Engels**Collected Works Vol. 37 (Capital,
Vol. 3)*.  New York: International Publishers

Neeson, J.M.  1993.  *Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change
in England, 1700-1820 <http://books.google.com/books?id=2CqhjjiwLtEC>*.
Cambridge University Press.
------------------------------
Ian Angus is editor of *Climate and
Capitalism<http://www.climateandcapitalism.com/>
*<www.climateandcapitalism.com> and an associate editor of *Socialist
Voice<http://www.socialistvoice.ca/>
* <www.socialistvoice.ca>.
------------------------------