The Tragedy of the Commons, Part 2

Every now and again while reading books and papers on the environment, I read about ‘the tragedy of the commons’. This is an idea introduced by Garrett Hardin in a 1968 essay by that name in Science.

The original essay was concerned with the population explosion, which, along with pollution, was the major, if indirect, environmental problem of the day. The general dilemma Hardin proposes is usually expressed by a simple historical analogy. When sheep and cattle grazed on common land, it was always in an individual’s interest to add one more animal to exploit this free resource until eventually the common land collapses from over-grazing and everyone is impoverished.

From an environmental point of view, the idea is used to justify parcelling the whole word out in to units of private property, on the grounds that then someone will have a clear interest in maintaining its value. It is part of the intellectual bedrock of capitalism and it is being used now to anoint private property as the saviour of environment rather than its worst nightmare.

What’s wrong with this idea? It’s hard to know where to start.

Firstly, it assumes that the original observation was completely general – that there are no conditions under which a collective agreement to operate in a particular way that is in everyone’s interests can be reached and sustained. Like many apologists for market economics, Hardin assumes either that everyone is out for themselves or that those who are not will be overwhelmed by those who are. He offers many useful insights into this situation, including some basic criticisms of market thinking, but basically assumes as a universal truth the egoism that is in fact produced only by social systems that isolate their members from one another. Though by no means unique in this regard, capitalism is exceptionally good at isolating the individual.

Conversely, many societies have managed their commons perfectly well. I suspect it was only with the rise of capitalism, when the right to buy and sell property in land became widespread, that anyone that turning the land into private property became desirable or even thinkable. Before that, access to the land was controlled socially, by common agreement. After that, the commons ceased to be genuinely common, and became merely public. Are we incapable of simply agreeing to manage the environment more intelligently?

Nor should anyone forget the brutality with which the common land was enclosed by its owners and the people impoverished and turned off. In other words, the possibility of despoliation was followed by the cast-iron certainty of eviction. We are seeing a re-run of this process in the Third World right now, and the efficiencies this is supposedly introducing into the economies of, for example, rural India, are pricing the food the land now creates out of the reach of the very people who grow it and forcing millions more into the slums – where the next turn of the environmental screw will find millions more victims.

Secondly, it assumes that an owner maintaining the value of their property means defending its environmental integrity. That doesn’t make much sense either. What is in the owner’s interests will depend on the nature of the wider economic system, which in any contemporary case means exploiting it to maximise profit. Generally speaking, contemporary property owners are under pressure to maximise the return on their capital quickly. In other words, their stewardship is likely to focus less on the environment and more on their shareholders and their bank accounts. Why this should benefit the environment is not obvious to anyone who has ever observed the behaviour of businesses in the oil, gas, timber, mining, fishing and other areas of primary production.

Thirdly, businesses have no way of evaluating environmental impacts. Or rather, they can detect them, but only when they have a price tag on them. This in turn will only occur when those impacts have a demonstrable effect on the bottom line. But as we have already seen with, for example, the devastation of our fisheries, this may have no connection with an objective environmental disaster. We’ve known about the damage we are causing to the natural environment and its consequences for decades, and still neither business nor the market have done anything about it. We may decide to let the accountants decide in their own good time whether it’s worth having an entry in the books marked ‘collapse of civilisation’, but on the whole I’d rather not wait.

Of course, the enthusiasts for private property reply that the problem is that the fish aren’t owned by anyone, so no one has an interest in preserving fish stocks. This argument has the merit of being consistent, but unfortunately has corollaries that are too scary for words. Water is being polluted; should someone own the water? Should my access to clean water be by payment only? If I don’t have any money, should I be allowed to die of thirst? What if the owner will make more out of selling it to a rich person who just wants another bath or thinks they need a nice green lawn? We do this with food all the time – there has never been a time when there was not enough food in the world, only times when many people were deprived of it because they had no money. And what about the air that we breathe?

Of course, there are other alternatives that are compatible with retaining capitalist businesses as part of our economic system, such as taxation and regulation. It’s not an efficient solution, but regulation is like representative democracy – as Winston Churchill said, it is the worst of all possible systems, apart from all the other ones we’ve already tried. If, in the few years we have to turn the ship around, someone can identify a better mechanism for reducing the world’s collective carbon footprint to zero, then fine. And in the meantime, relying on business or the market to do it is like asking a blind idiot to drive you home. On the other hand, if business doesn’t like political direction or regulation, I’m sure we unrepentant lefties can think of alternatives, though they might be a little radical for business’s tastes.

Finally, private property only inverts the tragedy of the commons. Instead of bringing forth the hero who will defend the land against the ravages of self-interest, it creates a mass of corporate ‘individuals’ – the businesses themselves – for whom it is always in their interests to make someone else pay for their problems. Insofar as property owners compete with one another, they will always want to make one of their competitors pay first. And insofar as property owners share a collective interest to make the rest of us pay, then that is what they will want to do. How does this differ from the tragedy of the commons, except in that we already know that this is going to happen?

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