The Tragedy of “The Tragedy of the Commons”

by John McHugh

In 1833, William Forster Lloyd wrote an essay first describing a concept that later became known as “the tragedy of the commons,” using an example of the effects of unregulated grazing of common land.

William observed how lands held in common ownership suffered and became degraded and depleted relative to lands held as private property. The owners of private property, he surmised, had a financial incentive to care for their land, avoiding overgrazing or other practices that would lead to its depletion and as a result lower their potential income in the future,. Conversely, showing similar care and prudence towards common lands simply presents an opportunity for another party to extract more than their fair share. The competitive psychology of common ownership implied that it actually leads to each party thinking short term and stocking the land heavily to try and extract more value than the other parties involved.

The theory is that there is also little incentive for an individual to take the initiative to try to improve the land in any way, knowing that the rewards of such action will be shared between all the parties involved. 

Garrett James Hardin gave this concept its name when he published a controversial essay called “The tragedy of the commons” in 1968 bringing this concept into the light again and expanding our minds to what “the commons” can mean.

What can the commons encompass today?

The commons can include many different things that may not come immediately to mind. The open oceans, the Arctic and Antarctic, the Moon, Mars and other celestial bodies, our rivers, plants and animals, our rights to have children in a potentially over populated world (think China’s one child policy!), our atmosphere, this list could go on and is probably not exhaustible!

Atmospheric pollution is a perfect example of this playing out at the moment. The atmosphere is a common resource shared by all on this planet that we are jeopardising with many different Greenhouse Gasses (GHG). Agriculture in Ireland is estimated to account for 30% of our total GHG emissions and we have committed to reduce this figure by 20% on our 2005 levels by 2020. The psychology of this tragedy can be seen playing out in the irony of asking Irish farmers to curtail production in beef or dairy, only to see output increase in other countries that share the same atmosphere we do and often at a much higher environmental cost.

What are the possible solutions?

Garrett Hardin proposed that there was just two solutions to this problem, private property or socialism.

Private property involves dividing the commons up into private ownership where the owner now has an incentive to look after the commons in a sustainable manner. An example of this was the enclosure of lands in the UK and Ireland, whereby the commons was divided up and enclosed with hedges that formed boundaries that defined ownership. 

Socialism is a broad term for a system whereby all the stakeholders come together and agree to manage the commons in a sustainable manner. An example of this might include European Union fish quotas quantifying different countries rights to catch various fish stocks.

Both solutions are currently being used to tackle atmospheric pollution.

Carbon Trading schemes whereby different companies can buy credits or off-set their carbon emissions through practices such as purchasing land and planting forestry on it or purchasing off-sets from others such as pension funds who hold forestry or even off farmers who can trade their carbon credits can be viewed as a form of privatising the atmosphere or at least the right to emit greenhouse gases into it. Many countries such as China and large companies such as Google and Microsoft are active on this front and companies like Shell oil have even gone a step further and trade these credits to allow their customers reduce their Carbon footprint!

The 2016 Paris Agreement whereby 195 different countries have agreed to determine a plan to limit Greenhouse gas emissions and set increasingly ambitious targets leading towards Carbon neutrality can be viewed as a socialist solution towards tackling this problem. Ireland already looks set to miss our 2020 targets and the United States under Donald Trump has committed to pulling out of this agreement in late 2020! 

The future for much of humanity currently rests on the successful implementation of either or both of these two options!!

Could there be another solution?

Private ownership and Socialism are two solutions borne from the ideology of Capitalism. Many view Socialism or Communism as the polar opposite of Capitalism and fail to see it as simply a collective version of Capitalism where by the commune, the state or a collection of states like the United Nations or the Paris agreement Nations, take ownership of the resources and distribute them for the purpose of growth. 

Capitalism starts with breaking down the natural world into resources that become commodities or the fuel source for growth. The countryside becomes land, people become labour, money or the simple means of exchange becomes capital and human ideas and ingenuity becomes enterprise, all traded to increase the growth of Capital.

In this context even the ideas of “the commons” derives from the mind-set that nature is a commodity to be traded and consumed to generate more capital! Whether it is owned by an individual or a collective makes little difference, it is simply a slave to our individual or collective desire!

In the distant past, humanity often personified or even worshipped nature as deities. We frequently look back on our ancestors as simple people who didn’t understand the natural world like we do today. Our Celtic ancestors viewed trees as sacred beings with strict laws protecting them. Today we view them as a commodity, a source of timber or a source of carbon, both which can be traded to facilitate the growth of capital! Maybe we are the simple people who have lost our way!

Maybe now is the time to cast aside the growth of capital and turn our attention to the growth of our own being, a growth that can only be cultivated with a healthy co-operation with the natural world, co-operation that can only be achieved by abandoning our own bondage to capital and its continuous growth and in turn gradually freeing the rest of the natural world from this same bondage. Can we resurrect our own souls through the resurrection of a personified natural world where every interaction has to be fair and mutually beneficial?

Let us not accept “The Tragedy of the Commons”!