The Tragedy of the *Tragedy of the Commons*

The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist,
eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong
By Matto Mildenberger
<> on April
23, 2019
[image: The Tragedy of "The Tragedy of the Commons"]
Garrett Hardin in 1972. Credit: Bill Johnson *Getty Images*

Fifty years ago, University of California professor Garrett Hardin penned
an influential essay <>
in the journal *Science*. Hardin saw all humans as selfish herders: we
worry that our neighbors’ cattle will graze the best grass. So, we send
more of our cows out to consume that grass first. We take it first, before
someone else steals our share. This creates a vicious cycle of
environmental degradation that Hardin described as the “tragedy of the

It's hard to overstate Hardin’s impact on modern environmentalism. His
views are taught across ecology, economics, political science and
environmental studies. His essay remains an academic blockbuster, with almost
40,000 citations
It still gets republished in prominent environmental anthologies

But here are some inconvenient truths: 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.

To create a just and vibrant climate future, we need to instead cast Hardin
and his flawed metaphor overboard.

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.

These were not mere words on paper. Hardin lobbied Congress against sending
food aid to poor nations, because he believed their populations were
threatening Earth’s “carrying capacity.”

Of course, plenty of flawed people have left behind noble ideas. That
Hardin’s tragedy was advanced as part of a white nationalist project should
not automatically condemn its merits.

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.

We must reject his pernicious ideas on both scientific and moral grounds.
Environmental sustainability cannot exist without environmental justice.
Are we really prepared to follow Hardin and say there are only so many lead
pipes we can replace? Only so many bodies that should be protected from
cancer-causing pollutants? Only so many children whose futures matter?

This is particularly important when we deal with climate change. Despite
what Hardin might have said, the climate crisis is not a tragedy of the
The culprit is not our individual impulses to consume fossil fuels to the
ruin of all. And the solution is not to let small islands in Chesapeake Bay
or whole countries in the Pacific sink into the past, without a seat on our
planetary lifeboat.

Instead, 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.

This is what makes attacks on individual behavior so counterproductive.
Yes, it’s great to drive an electric vehicle (if you can afford it) and
purchase solar panels (if powerful utilities in your state haven’t conspired
<> to make renewable energy more
expensive). But the point is that interest groups have structured the
choices available to us today. Individuals don’t have the agency to steer
our economic ship from the passenger deck.

As Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes reminds us
“[abolitionists] wore clothes made of cotton picked by slaves. But that did
not make them hypocrites … it just meant that they were also part of the
slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change the
system, not just their clothes.”

Or as Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez tweeted
<>: “Living in the world
as it is isn’t an argument against working towards a better future.” The
truth is that two-thirds of all the carbon pollution ever released into the
atmosphere can be traced
to the activities of just ninety companies.

These corporations’ efforts to successfully thwart climate action are the
tragedy <>.

We are left with very little time. We need political leaders to pilot our
economy through a period of rapid economic transformation, on a grand scale
unseen since the Second World War. And to get there, we are going to have
make sure our leaders listen to us, not—as my colleagues and I show in our
research—fossil fuel companies.

Hope requires us to start from an unconditional commitment to one another,
as passengers aboard a common lifeboat being rattled by heavy winds. The
climate movement needs *more *people on this lifeboat, not fewer. We must
make room for every human if we are going to build the political power
necessary to face down the looming oil tankers and coal barges that send
heavy waves in our direction. This is a commitment at the heart of
proposals like the Green New Deal.

Fifty years on, let’s stop the mindless invocation of Hardin. Let’s stop
saying that we are all to blame because we all overuse shared resources.
Let’s stop championing policies that privilege environmental protection for
some human beings at the expense of others. And let’s replace Hardin’s
flawed metaphor with an inclusive vision for humanity—one based on
democratic governance and cooperation in this time of darkness.

Instead of writing a tragedy, we must offer hope for every single human on
Earth. Only then will the public rise up to silence the powerful carbon
polluters trying to steal our future.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily
those of Scientific American.
Rights & Permissions
Matto Mildenberger

Matto Mildenberger is assistant professor of environmental politics at the
University of California, Santa Barbara, where Garrett Hardin worked until