The myth of the tragedy of the commons  

Posted by Big Gav in

I occasionally wonder if every piece of information out there has some form of political bias embedded in it, with this article from the Monthly Review being a good example - The myth of the tragedy of the commons (via Energy Bulletin, which likes to proffer a bit of Marxist theory from time to time).

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. ...

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. ...

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.

10 comments

It's more a tragedy of anonymity. I mean, when you know all the people using that common land, people will generally restrain themselves a bit. If there's some guy who overgrazes the land, then when that guy comes and asks for help delivering a calf or something, people say "nope". So a small community regulates its communal property reasonably well.

But when it's you and ten million others using it, well...

Much the same goes for lots of things, like the way we produce our food and so on. It's anonymity. Like if someone cuts me off while I'm driving, if it's some anonymous guy I'll yell abuse, but if it were as I was driving in to work and it was a hot co-worker, amazingly I'd find extra patience from somewhere...

Thats certainly true of the global commons (atmosphere and oceans).

I thought one section within the article was interesting - saying that the "tragedy of the commons" theory would only hold true if everyone behaves like capitalists.

Of course - in the present day real world, that is how most people behave. Which means that even if the theory had no empirical foundation in the past, it may well be turn out to be true today.

However going down that line of reasoning clearly wasn't part of the point of the article.

Anonymous   says 1:24 AM

Hello BG and GwaG, Unlike many people, you actually seemed to read the original article!

I added more commentary at EB to explain the position. http://energybulletin.net/node/46424

This is an old controversy, which has lain dormant for the past few years. The two sides used to be polarized into what I would call biological determinism and sociological fundamentalism. Recently, many of the leftists have incorporated green arguments (e.g. at Monthly Review).

Best wishes, Bart

Thanks Bart - I thought it was an interesting piece, as were your subsequent comments...

The original essay may not have been backed by research, but there has been research performed since then.

The fact is that almost all pollution occurs in public spaces (land/water/air), while very little pollution occurs in private spaces.

To me, suggesting that this is only so because people "think like capitalists" misses the mark. This has nothing to to with capital formation or finance. So "think like capitalists" can only mean "act in their self interest by making free choices." Even if we wanted to condemn that it wouldn't work.

I take exception to the assertion that traditional forms of managing common resources did not involve what were effectively market decisions. For example, in traditional woodlot management the roving woodsman would actually buy the piece of forest he wanted to harvest. In my opinion, the reason that sustainable practices were incorporated was due to economics.

It's nice to imagine villages with "common pastures" who all get along nicely, but history is full of tales of conflict that emerge when property rights aren't clearly defined, and private ownership of such resources, intermediated by contracts to access one another's land for maximum productivity, has been shown to produce superior results time and time again... from the New Testament, to early America, to the Russian Revolution, these communal management practices were abandoned because they damaged the land and lowered productivity.

Marxists... communities work great, but only when they're formed out of 100% consensus of private individuals.

Hi Chase,

Can you point us to the "subsequent research" ?

And my comment said "behave like capitalists", not "think like capitalists".

Regardless of people's ideological blinders, the problem remains - we can't make the atmosphere or the oceans private property, so we need to work out ways of avoiding polluting them to the point they are ruined (from the point of view of sustaining life as we know it) - preferably in ways that don't impinge on individual freedom...

Dr. Mary J. Ruwart cites lots of them in her book, Healing Our World.

Here's an article summarizing her point of view:
http://www.isil.org/resources/lit/pollution-solution.html

Excerpt from her book - unfortunately without the footnotes which I believe are in the real thing:

"The Bureau of Land Management controls an area almost twice the size of Texas, including nearly all of Alaska and Nevada. Much of this land is rented to ranchers for grazing cattle. Because ranchers are only renting the land, they have no incentive to take care of it. Not surprisingly, studies as early as 1925 indicated that cattle were twice as likely to die on public ranges and had half as many calves as animals grazing on private lands.

"Obviously, owners make better environmental guardians than renters. If the government sold its acreage to private ranchers, the new owners would make sure that they grazed the land sustainably to maximize profit and yield.

"Indeed, ownership of wildlife can literally save endangered species from extinction. Between 1979 and 1989, Kenya banned elephant hunting, yet the number of these noble beasts dropped from 65,000 to 19,000. In Zimbabwe during the same time period, however, elephants could be legally owned and sold. The number of elephants increased from 30,000 to 43,000 as their owners became fiercely protective of their "property." Poachers didn't have a chance!"

As far as the deep oceans and air supply, privatization may not be an viable option right now... But we could protect rivers, and possible near-shore oceans from pollution and overfishing much better by privatizing IMO.

The Maine Lobster industry is a 'sort of' example. While fisherman don't really own their patch of oceans, there are de facto territories enforced at gun point. Notably, the Lobster industry is the only one here that wasn't decimated by overfishing in the last few decades.

Fair enough - thanks for providing that link and your comments...

Ian Angus has an update to his original article "The myth of the tragedy of the commons" on his blog
"Climate and Capitalism"

http://climateandcapitalism.com/?p=576

"A reply to criticisms and questions about my article on Garrett Hardin’s influential essay"

Thanks.

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