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The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons
August 30, 2008 9:16 AM   Subscribe

The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons. `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....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.`
posted by stbalbach (50 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
Of course, that self-regulation only happens in a particular class of commons, where there is a tight community which can build around the commons and hence self-regulates. The claim that it happens in the vast majority of commons is ludicrous (you can bet the endangered tunas, whales, etc., wish it were true, though.)

This isn't to say that the original piece isn't flawed, but there is a vast and still growing literature discussing its flaws, that this article doesn't meaningfully add to.
posted by louie at 9:23 AM on August 30, 2008 [8 favorites]


Thanks for the post, but are they seriously citing Marx and Engels? Way to be a caricature. Jesus.
posted by nasreddin at 9:28 AM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


A socialist publication shilling for unrestrained collectivism and ignoring the vibrant and ongoing discussion about precisely the issue it purports to discuss? Meh.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:29 AM on August 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Needs 'strawMan' tag.
posted by ardgedee at 9:43 AM on August 30, 2008


Dear first three posters. I don't agree or disagree, but I suspect many people take the "tragedy of the commons" to be gospel truth (I have). This article is a nice introduction to some of its flaws. Short, easy to read, starting with a backgrounder and historical context. If you have other articles like this, that are not too technical, for a general audience, that address your concerns, that would be great. Thanks.
posted by stbalbach at 9:43 AM on August 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Dear first three four posters.
posted by stbalbach at 9:44 AM on August 30, 2008


I think, loule, that the difference posited in the article between the community of herdsmen and the overfishing of the seas is that the agents on the one hand are individuals who are part of a community and responsible to that community, and the commons in question are managed in common by the community. The argument is that people take responsibility for their actions and the community regulates the use of the commons. In the case of overfishing that you mention the agents tend to be large corporations whose only responsibility is to generate profit - they aren't in any real sense part of a community that owns and manages the commons. This is precisely what the article is arguing, i think, that the Hardin article is actually describing a situation of unregulated capitalism, not a commonly managed resource.
posted by silence at 10:05 AM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Michael Heller of Colombia University argues that private ownership leads to gridlock resulting in under-use of resources in the patent and copyright arenas. Sort of a tragedy of the traffic intersection. Dependencies between resources mean any one private owner can stop all forward progress. There's text and audio of him being interviewed on APM's Marketplace.

Certainly from my perspective as a software developer it's not difficult to point to massive abuse of the patent system for anti-competitive purposes. It's not uncommon for Internet standards bodies to require participants to provide royalty-free licenses for any relevant patents so others won't be afraid to build on and support new standards. They know from experience how patents can freeze progress.
posted by sdodd at 10:06 AM on August 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Huh, I usually hear the "Tragedy of the Commons" argument as an argument for regulation, not for privatization.

After all, when people talk about the "tragedy of the commons" with regard to say pollution or global warming, they're not suggesting private ownership of the air, rather they are arguing for regulation.

Although I suppose you could look at free Cap and Trade as a sort of ownership over CO2 emissions, just as FCC licensing represents "ownership" of common radio spectrum.

So it's surprising to find out that the argument was originally designed to argue for increased capitalism and private ownership, but I guess it works that way too.

Hmm.
posted by delmoi at 10:20 AM on August 30, 2008 [6 favorites]


Hmm, I liked the article a lot better than I expected from the comments here.

After more thinking, I fundamentally agree with his thesis that such a "tragedy" isn't the inevitable outcome of any shared resource, but depends on whether the community acts effectively as a group to preserve that resource for the long-term.

I also agree with his critique that the premises of "tTotC" seem to beg the conclusion.

And it's certainly clear that free-market capitalism and competitive ventures in general have a very poor record in the "resource preservation" category.

If there are arguments in the literature that refute this and that the writer is ignoring, I'd like to know about them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:27 AM on August 30, 2008


Thank you. nice easy to read article,trying to courage up and tackle Reading Marx's Capital with David Harvey. .
posted by hortense at 10:27 AM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Certainly from my perspective as a software developer it's not difficult to point to massive abuse of the patent system for anti-competitive purposes.

That goes along with what he's saying - this is a case where the community has lost control over their shared resource.

How much better would the software patent system be if it were run by developers? Would an engineer be able to stand up in front of a group of other engineers and claim that "clicking on a button to purchase something" was a "software innovation" - and keep a straight face?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:31 AM on August 30, 2008


"It was pointed out to me that Prof. Hardin later said he should have named his essay "The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons". In 1994 he published a paper with that title."

-- Dan Bricklin, April 23, 2001
posted by troy at 10:38 AM on August 30, 2008


"The Tragedy of the Commons" is a catchy name, seemingly coined in 1968. But the concept that common land will generally be more productive if privately owned is much older. Land enclosure happened to a degree in the early modern age, and took off in the UK in the 18th century. It was an immensely complicated process with far-reaching consequences, and is still controversial. It seems fairly clear though that land enclosure did increase agricultural output, though at the cost of creating immense hardship.

See Wikipedia on Enclosure or the Inclosure Act, or just read Marx. The Tragedy of the Anticommons is interesting too.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:40 AM on August 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


Aaaagh!

The point of Hardin's article was that "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" was necessary to prevent overuse of a common resource. He thought that the restrictions could come either from privatization OR from state regulation. This article simply ignores the "or regulation" half of Hardin's argument, thereby creating a nicely puffed-up straw man for ideological purposes.

Now, Hardin was indeed wrong in one of his critical assumptions. He thought that the restrictions on use could come only from private property or from the state. That assumption has been exploded through a lot of good field work; some communities do successfully self-regulate, and a lot of very good economic work has been done trying to figure out which ones succeed and which ones fail. The linked article is half-right in pointing out that sometimes communities get it right, but pretty much everything depends on situation-specific factors.

Elinor Ostrom's work is the go-to reference here: she started a now decades-old conversation on exactly which factors matter and how much. For example, it's not small farmers vs. large corporations -- there are plenty of farming communities that have blown the task of commons management in irrigation, and some large corporations who've done well at commons management in pumping water out of the ground. Instead, it matters a great deal whether others can tell that you're grazing your metaphorical sheep on the metaphorical pasture, and it matters whether there's a good forum for everyone to come together and talk about what to do, and it's easier when the pasture is smaller and used by fewer people, and so on.

I've learned that it's not worth taking seriously any piece that acts as though this follow-on literature didn't exist. The authors of such trash -- whether pro-regulation, pro-property, or pro-community -- are not engaged in the serious work of trying to actually solve common-pool resource problems. They're just trying to score cheap ideological points.
posted by grimmelm at 10:42 AM on August 30, 2008 [18 favorites]


Related drill-down essay from Mason Gaffney, my favorite (if solitary) voice in academia.
posted by troy at 10:42 AM on August 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


but are they seriously citing Marx and Engels?

There's this "team" thing in economics and political science where you pretend everyone on the other "teams" is just so, so irrational that their arguments aren't even in the same language.

Marx, Engels both were seminal writers about the problem of co-operation vs. competition and are perfectly reasonable to cite here.

Hard sciences never have this sort of thing. People like Galileo and Newton had most of the details wrong but no one thinks anything of that - because we would never have found the details without their ground-breaking work and hundreds of years of hard work after that.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:42 AM on August 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


actually delmoi, people do often use the idea of the tragedy of the commons as an argument for doing things like privatising the air. In effect carbon quotas etc. do exactly that - they create a resource that can be owned and traded. They don't privatise the air per se, but they privatise the use of the air as a dumping ground for waste. This isn't to say that I personally am against carbon trading - in a global capitalist economy I think it's probably the most pragmatic way to manage the problem in the near term.
posted by silence at 10:43 AM on August 30, 2008


Michael Heller of Colombia University argues that private ownership leads to gridlock resulting in under-use of resources in the patent and copyright arenas.

The name of his most recent book is Gridlock Economy and, though I haven't read it, everything I've heard about it tells me it's essential if you want to get to the heart of what's deadly wrong with an unwavering belief in The Market's inherent perfection. It even comes with a front cover rave from Lawrence Lessig, who has never been wrong about anything:

“This extraordinarily important and beautifully written book will be the foundation to a new metaphor that will guide public policy work for at least a generation.”
posted by philip-random at 10:47 AM on August 30, 2008 [3 favorites]


I stopped reading when he called Hardin's essay a "piece of reactionary nonsense". Then, after some thinking, I read the rest of it. I found that what he's trying to say can be summarized as follows:

1. Hardin's understanding of what the world is like (humans are selfish and don't care about the impact of their actions on the community) is false because

2. My [Ian Angus'] understanding of what the world ought to be like is correct.

QED?
posted by daniel_charms at 10:50 AM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks, grimmelm, just what I was looking for. Reading about Ostrom's work and Public Choice Theory now.

I would say that in your examples and in the examples I'm seeing, there seem to be two very significant factors: resource constraints, and an abstract intellectual/co-operative thing that for the want of a better word I'd call "wisdom" - more specifically, "the ability to forgo larger gains now for a more steady flow of gains in the distant future".

And I'm seeing another thing from my extremely fast scan - that "information dissemination does lead to wisdom". The more "public" an idea is, the more likely the "wise" decision will be reached.

If you think of a resource subject to tTotC as a continuous game like the Prisoner's Dilemma, people will "defect" much more if no one knows about it.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:52 AM on August 30, 2008


> Lawrence Lessig [has] never been wrong about anything

Quoted for motherfucking truth.
posted by sdodd at 10:58 AM on August 30, 2008


"humans are selfish and don't care about the impact of their actions on the community"

Actually, there's a name for humans who have no "community" that they care about - they're called "psychopaths" and only about 4% of humans are like that. The other 96% of us do have some sort of community that they care about, and usually very deeply.

Even if you said "humans are selfish and don't care about the impact of their actions of the rest of the human race" I wouldn't agree - I'd say most people do care but not enough to put ahead of their local community, and are not wise enough to put the future ahead of the present.

It seems to me you've mis-represented Hardin's paper and Angus'.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:59 AM on August 30, 2008



Marx, Engels both were seminal writers about the problem of co-operation vs. competition and are perfectly reasonable to cite here.


Oh please. He's not citing them for their weighty theoretical import. He's citing them because that's what a good capital-S Socialist does. There's been plenty of much better and more interesting historical and theoretical work on these issues since then, not least by Marxists themselves, but none of them have the cachet of good old M&E. It's the rhetorical equivalent of wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, and it's tacky as hell.

Which is not to say that I dislike Marx and Engels. I've cited them a lot myself. But this is not the kind of argument where anything they have to say is current enough to act as any kind of evidence.
posted by nasreddin at 11:03 AM on August 30, 2008


Even if you said "humans are selfish and don't care about the impact of their actions of the rest of the human race" I wouldn't agree. [...] It seems to me you've mis-represented Hardin's paper and Angus'.

I was actually (loosely) quoting Angus there ("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"). I also agree that this is a misrepresentation of Hardin's essay.
posted by daniel_charms at 11:15 AM on August 30, 2008


Actually, there's a name for humans who have no "community" that they care about - they're called "psychopaths" and only about 4% of humans are like that. The other 96% of us do have some sort of community that they care about, and usually very deeply.

And what are the percentages on relative concentrations of wealth again?
posted by mwhybark at 11:22 AM on August 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Hmm, good point there daniel_charms, I should have looked at the original paper again.

And what are the percentages on relative concentrations of wealth again?

I don't think all rich people are psychopaths. But there's a surprisingly high correlation.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:25 AM on August 30, 2008


There's an interesting discussion of this phenomenon, and resulting attempts at self-regulation, in Jared Diamond's Collapse. Without getting into a discussion of the merits of his work generally, I think it stands on its own pretty well.

His theory, as I understand it (and I'm only summarizing because that portion of the book isn't online and easily linkable, at least as far as I can find), is that successful self-regulation strategies fall into either "top down" or "bottom up" solutions.

Successful "bottom up" regulation requires that individuals understand their reliance on the communal resource (i.e. they know they have something at stake), understand that it needs to be regulated, and have enough trust in the community and in its enforcement mechanisms to believe that other people will follow along (so they won't be putting themselves at a disadvantage by participating). I believe the example used in the book is communal resource management by New Guinea highlands tribes, which have little in the way of formal governmental structure.

"Top down" regulation requires an authority who recognizes the importance of the resource, and has the power to enforce compliance on all people who have access to it. It's simpler, but requires an effective power structure to implement. The example is forest management in Japan during the Edo period, which was basically by edict.

So the tragedy of the commons is clearly not inevitable, but the issue is that although many environmental problems may lend themselves to management, many others — international ones, or ones in areas where there are too many competing actors for bottom-up management but too little effective government for top-down — don't. In the absence of either kind of management, there is an obvious incentive to exploit the communal resource as aggressively as possible, before everyone else does.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:51 AM on August 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


they're called "psychopaths"

so·ci·o·path
• n. a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.

But there's a surprisingly high correlation.

Learning the difference between capitalism -- the private creation and for-profit sale of goods and services) -- and base rent-seeking was like the scales coming off my eyes.

Marxist-Leninist or putatively Free Market, a shining megapolis in the Far East or a dusty backwater on the African continent: rent-seeking is the cancer in any economy, and rent-seeking in land tenureship has been the game since before recorded history.
posted by troy at 12:13 PM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


psy·cho·path (sī'kə-păth')
n. A person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behavior without empathy or remorse.

Not much difference. I've looked for a clear distinction between socio and psycho and haven't found it it in the literature.

My thoughts these days is that 96% of the world are basically good people as long as their needs and their families' needs are met, and the remaining 4% are responsible for most of avoidable, bad things that happen (the second biggest cause being "ignorance and short-sightedness").

"rent-seeking is the cancer in any economy" Unfortunately, territoriality is primal in humans...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:24 PM on August 30, 2008


I don't think all rich people are psychopaths. But there's a surprisingly high correlation.

It shouldn't be a surprise. Often the shortest, quickest path to wealth is at the expense of lots of middle-class or working-class folks. If you don't give a flying whatever about other people, using up their health, savings, credit or what-have-you to give you a leg up is a no-brainer.
posted by illiad at 12:48 PM on August 30, 2008


I've done a bit of reading around this (okay, commons and enclosures are kind of a big part of my current research),

...and most of the take-down of the simplistic reading of Hardin has been done. Hardin's article isn't really the problem (though flawed in its historical discussion, what he says about modern unmanaged commons like the air and oceans is very true), but rather how it's been understood by people who read it quickly and didn't know the history of commons management.

But what I've noticed is that sustainable use of resources isn't really an effect of private or public (or group) ownership, but how the owners see their relationship with that resource in the future. Private owners who see a resource as an investment for decades or centuries, such as early modern estate owners, could be quite conservationist. While publically or communually managed resources - such as uses of crown land or inshore fishing (to give two Canadian examples) - can be very poorly managed when immediate demands trump long-term concerns. Historically, communual management has been very conservative (both in terms of conserving, but also in terms of being unwilling to change), because it's hard to get a larger group of people to committ to big changes, and because doing anything that causes long term damage affects the whole group.

That said, most of the scholarly debate about communal resources - historical or contemporary - is as much about economic inequality and access to resources/livelyhoods as it is about environmental/sustainability issues. Communal resources are often more accessible to people of low social-economic status than private ones, and thus could/do alieviate economic inequality. But the history of communal management (at least in the European case) is also one that when things get tight, and the communal management kicks in to protect the environment, they began to exclude people. First (obviously) outsiders, but as resources become scarcer, they also excluded the lowest status people. Basically, common resources aren't so different from private property -- and as things get tight, they get more restricted to the more powerful.
posted by jb at 1:14 PM on August 30, 2008


Is the original essay really wrong? Total freedom does ruin common spaces. Once you apply rules, etints, etc. it's no longer a free common area and the Tragedy of the Commons doesn't really apply.
posted by autodidact at 1:21 PM on August 30, 2008


The tragedy of the commons: they're only 2/5 the price of uncommons, but sometimes you get a basic land or something with BANDING.
posted by tehloki at 1:32 PM on August 30, 2008 [4 favorites]


Interesting article; thanks to the poster and to the commenters who have added necessary qualifications and other sources.

Total freedom does ruin common spaces.

Evidence?
posted by languagehat at 2:07 PM on August 30, 2008


^ The islands of Oahu & Maui.
posted by troy at 2:52 PM on August 30, 2008


Hardin is also known for his essay "Lifeboat Ethics", in which he argues that rich people should hoard their wealth and let the poor die, and that failing to do so would doom humanity.

Economists love him, but he was a pretty piss-poor philosopher; your average high-schooler should be capable of picking apart his arguments.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:56 PM on August 30, 2008


Evidence?

Fisheries. Email spam. Pollution. Road use. Deforestation.

Would it be unreasonable to suggest that communities that can successfully manage a shared resource have these features:
1 About seventy people maximum (human limits for "in my gang")
2 Long-term, permanent relationships between people (so tit-for-tat works, you know if you abuse the commons you'll have to deal with the same people - no running off somewhere else.)

So village green of small, settled village? Communal resource works fine. Air in major city? Communal resource doesn't work, everyone pollutes it, governmental regulation required. Land use with highly-mobile and impermanent settlement (e.g. slash-and-burn agriculturalists)? Communal resource doesn't work, people move on, private ownership required.

Great discussion!
posted by alasdair at 3:44 PM on August 30, 2008


Maybe we could accept that not all commons are created the same and that arguing over commons as if only "all commons must be regulated/privatised" and "all commons must be left common" are the only two possibilities is dumb?
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:02 PM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


there was a great article about "new commons" in the economist recently (referenced here ;) which mentioned that hardin, in retrospect, acknowledged its shortcomings:
The other implication of Hardin’s analysis—that the commons are doomed—came under attack early on. When economists began to look at how systems of commonly managed resources actually worked, they found to their surprise that they often worked quite well. Swiss Alpine pastures; Japanese forests; irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines. All these were examples of commons that lasted for decades. Some irrigation networks held in common were more efficiently run than the public and private systems that worked alongside them. Though there were failures, too, it seemed as if good management could stave off the tragedy. Before he died, Hardin admitted he should have called his article “The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons”.
cheers!
posted by kliuless at 5:15 PM on August 30, 2008


ah :P

i guess i might also add that the tragedy of the unmanaged commons can be broadened out to externalities (and game theory for that matter) with interesting applications, e.g. (digital) rights management and artificial scarcity, or like political violence and robust settlements (abs):
Another important factor illuminated in the model has to do with the divisibility of stakes [cf. rivalness and excludability]. Wood shows how greater indivisibility (the less divisible the pie), reduces the likelihood of enduring resolution by reducing the range of possible and robust settlements. A good example of this is when one side in the conflict is demanding to name the sole language, a stake that seems to be indivisible...
cheers!
posted by kliuless at 6:06 PM on August 30, 2008


The article asks "Where is the evidence," but provides not one whit of evidence to contradict the main thrust of TTOTC.

I am about to begin managing a large fishery, and it scares me to death. Why? Because I can count on one hand the inshore fisheries in the US that have not been TOTC'd into the ground. There is little a manager can do to stop it from happening short of a complete moratorium on all harvest. All you can do is try to slow it down and make it take longer.

So good luck convincing me (or any other person who actually has to manage a resource located in a commons) that it's not real.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 6:44 PM on August 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Actually, there's a name for humans who have no "community" that they care about - they're called "psychopaths" and only about 4% of humans are like that. The other 96% of us do have some sort of community that they care about, and usually very deeply.

Simplistic, though. For the most part, the other 96% of us care deeply about the parts of the community that touch us directly - and don't give a rat's about the bits that don't. At best, we rationalise our not caring attitude to various degrees through various means.

Climate Change? Well, we could band together in our community (country?) and do something positive to help combat it, even just a little bit - but why bother, when China's outstripping us all in her contribution. Besides, it'd hurt us too much - unless you can find a way of monetising our 'restraint'?

Water management? But I need my water allocation, and those bastards upstream are taking too much! The people downstream will just have to wait until those greedy bastards upstream can supply me with what I need, then they can have what's left over.

Zimbabwe? Yeah, it's horrible, but whatchagonna do? It's not hurting me...

Community. for most people, is "that bit of the world we're afraid will punch us in the face if it catches us screwing it"...

(Don't kid yourself that you're any better because you do care, and are doing something about, the things listed above - because there's 1001 other examples of things you are contributing negatively to that you don't care, or even know, about...)
posted by Pinback at 6:56 PM on August 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Land use with highly-mobile and impermanent settlement (e.g. slash-and-burn agriculturalists)? Communal resource doesn't work, people move on, private ownership required.

Many traditional forms of slash-and-burn, aka swidden, agriculture can be very sustainable. In some places, such as the mountainous area of the Phillipines studied in the 1950s by Harold Conkin, such practices are the only way to farm without massive soil erosion. (The standing tree stumps keep the soil on the hillside; if they had fields used every-year, that would have been truly destructive).

What's different about slash and burn somewhere like the Amazon basin is that it isn't a cyclical system with an eye to the future (swidden systems have cycles which can be decades long), but one in which all cultivation is on a yearly basis - and the techniques are ill-suited to the local environment. They aren't really swidden agriculture techniques, but a form of traditional Western or Asian-style field agriculture applied to land cleared by slashing and burning like swidden. And it is impermanent in a way that traditional swidden practices aren't, because the soil is not at all suited to field agriculture and is quickly damaged, forcing people to move on. Traditional swidden sites, on the other hand, are used again and again on a cycle; communities may move, but within a region.

It's true that swidden practices don't work as populations increase -- it's not the fact that settlement is highly mobile and impermanent that makes it unsustainable, but that swidden, like hunting and gathering, requires more land per person than more intensive farming practices, so that it can have a long enough rest cycle. But it's also true that intensive farming practices often don't work in marginal environments or are even damaging to them (as in the Amazon basin, where the soils are quickly leached).

We've been farming this planet for millennia, and our ancestors were no slouches -- they knew what worked best where, and they would do intensive agrulcture where that was best (more food! more stuff!) and extensive where it wasn't possible, and pushed the hunter-gatherers onto the worst farm land. Not that they didn't screw up, like us - the Norsemen in Greenland just the most famous example. But any system which has been working for millennia (like swidden agriculture or mobile trans-humanism, which has at times also been criticised) probably has some advantages which are worth understanding.
posted by jb at 8:30 PM on August 30, 2008


So good luck convincing me (or any other person who actually has to manage a resource located in a commons) that it's not real.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 9:44 PM on August 30 [+] [!]


I think that the Tragedy of the Commons is often right.

What many historians and scholars have objected to was only the few pages in the article which related to English commons, etc -- because they were not open access resources (the focus of Hardin's main thrust). But what is also clear is that in the history of European commons management, as any given resource became scarcer, access to it was increasingly restricted - they became less common. Common rights (whether in a waste or part of the year on the open fields) became another form of property, albeit one that was communally managed; their solution to increasing population pressures was to exclude the excess population from the resource.

But what lessons do we take from the history of commons management to our commons? Well, that management is not only good, it is essential. That restriction of access is probably neccessary (hopefully not just to the rich). That there need to be enforcing strictures that mean something on that resource, just like communities used to check their cattle for brands -- which is why oceanic fisheries are just about impossible to police. And the management of that resource has to be done with sustainability on the millennial scale in mind -- something that is extremely difficult if not impossible in a world of 4-5 year political terms and 1-year based profit goals.

But then again, I'm not sure that we have ever really been willing to sacrafice for the good of others or some vague future. I've been reading about a region in England where maintenance of river banks was essential to everyone's well-being so they didn't get flooded, but no one (not landlords, not tenants) really wanted to pony up the money to keep them up. They kept accusing each other of negligance.
posted by jb at 8:51 PM on August 30, 2008


My exposure to the article The Tragedy of the Commons (that's his article, not a critique) came while I was a Environmental Studies student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the mid 80s. The way the professor framed it, and when he had Hardin give a lecture about it, was about pollution -- specifically the air and sea -- and over-population. He also used people's stereo's blaring in the dorms as an example of the commons. You can either have a free for all, or rules.

The metaphor of the herders was just that, a metaphor. In fact, that metaphor isn't even Hardin's: It is William Foster Lloyd's counterpoint to Smith's "Invisible hand".

Although half-asleep for more lectures and unmotivated at the time (and eventually changing majors and universities), that class - The Social Environment - left a mark on me twenty years later. The "commons" is the planet. And pinback nailed it.

Yeah, the homeonwer's association will make sure the communal park and nature walk isn't ruined. A collective farm in Vermont can make sure they don't over-farm. Georgia Pacific and practice responsible forestry management. But that big Texas-sized blog of trash in the Pacific Ocean is proof that Hardin was right. The Oceans are our trash bins. And as a group, people can't be bothered to reduce their trash footprint. Most people have a hard time bothering to separate recyclables from other trash. But as long as they pick up the trash it goes off somewhere and people forget it. Out of site, out of mind.

The air is the same way. Every time I see a GM Hummer on the road I think of Dr. Hardin. I chose to take mass transit and drive a smaller car, but my neighbor is erasing the pollutant saving I make with his choice in transportation. That's how it works in the commons.

The nations of the planet can agree to manage the common air but if major polluting countries opt out, what's the point? Why should Germany, Canada and Denmark bust their ass to be carbon neutral if the US and China fuck it up for everyone?
posted by birdherder at 6:47 AM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's true that swidden practices don't work as populations increase

Well, sure, and common fishing practices don't work when you get sonar boats, and common forestry practices don't work when there are enough people with axes to chop down all the trees. If the human population doesn't have the technology or numbers to degrade the environment then the commons are just fine, but that isn't to the credit of the human population.

I am highly skeptical of the idea of primitive peoples being in some kind of harmony with nature, if the primitive people can possibly avoid it. Because primitive people are just like us, but there are lots more of us and we have better axes, guns and fishing nets. They're not dumber, or less ambitious: they just haven't developed the technology or numbers, either because they haven't had time or because the environment doesn't support it.

Now, a people who have the ability to degrade their environment, primitive or advanced, but who manage not to do so - and who have more than seventy-odd people - well, now, that would be interesting.
posted by alasdair at 10:42 AM on August 31, 2008


I am highly skeptical of the idea of primitive peoples being in some kind of harmony with nature

For good reason - in the past, we (aka humans) have messed up the environment over and over again.

But I wasn't talking about "primitive peoples" but a complex, not particularly primitive and sustainable practice which has recently been slandered because it happens to share a name with a very different practice. It takes more land per person than field-style agriculture, but is less destructive than field-style agriculture in specific situations - such as in mountainous rainforests which are susceptible to soil erosion (one of the most serious problems facing agriculturalists around the world today). Thus, traditional swidden can be a way to utilise land which cannot be utilised sustainably in most other ways, just as pastoral agriculture (criticised by 16th century commonwealthmen and 21st century militant vegans alike for not being as productive as grain/crops) can be a more sustainable and productive use of land which isn't very good for arable use, like most of Britain.

What I would say is that long-standing practices like traditional swidden are often long-standing for a good reason - if they weren't sustainable, they couldn't have been done for so long. And that we should understand why they were done, and whether they are still applicable to the current situation, or whether the situation has changed too much.

Now, a people who have the ability to degrade their environment, primitive or advanced, but who manage not to do so - and who have more than seventy-odd people - well, now, that would be interesting.

Commons management in early modern England involved towns (even urban centres) and villages of hundreds or thousands of people. They had bureacracies to help - village officers who would impound the animals of violators, for example, and, of course, they still argued a lot about who should do what when. It helped that they had a local government structure which could oversee the resource -- conflicts between towns or counties who shared a resource could be more difficult to solve.
posted by jb at 2:09 PM on August 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


jb: Ah, I get you now. How interesting, thank-you!
posted by alasdair at 2:41 PM on September 1, 2008


It's a mistake to generalize about "primitive peoples" as if they were necessarily similar in attitudes or practices just because they had similar technology levels. There are many historical examples of past societies both screwing the pooch royally, and finding stability and balance with their environment.

There's an accumulating body of evidence suggesting that humans committed one of the key ecological disasters of the modern (geologic, not historical) period, by wiping out the megafauna through over-hunting, with nothing more than 'primitive' tools. High technology may make environmental damage or depletion faster and easier, but it's not required.

But on the other hand, there are many societies that have found sustainable long-term balance, as evidenced by a lack of drastic changes in their way of life for thousands of years.

I think that because most of the existing low-technology societies are ones that found stability a long time ago (and thus didn't have much pressure to change), it's easy to assume that all low-technology societies lived so sustainably, and that their technology level is the cause (rather than an effect) of their stability. But of course this is only apparent because we're looking at such a biased sample.

My suspicion is that, as we get a better understanding of past societies that are no longer around, it will become more evident that the "primitive" societies that are still around aren't stable because of their low technology, but because of very specific behavioral choices and long, hard-won experience.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:21 AM on September 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


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