Tragically, CAPS Co-Founder’s Essay Proves Prescient – ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ 45 Years Later

Published on December 2nd, 2013

Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) was a long-time professor of human ecology at UC-Santa Barbara. He was the author of numerous hard-hitting books and articles, among them Living Within Limits, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia and “Living on a Lifeboat.”

In 1968, Prof. Hardin’s landmark essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” appeared in the journal Science. For decades afterwards, Science received more requests to reprint this article than for any of the hundreds of others that it published.

In 2009, the late Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics specifically for her body of work challenging Hardin’s concept of the commons.

What was Hardin’s essay about and why was it so influential that even the Nobel Committee thought that an effort to rebut it warranted such a prestigious prize?

The “tragedy of the commons” occurs at the intersection of economics and environmental management. It refers to depletion of a shared resource by individuals or groups, each acting independently and rationally according to their own short-term self-interest.

The original “commons” which Hardin used as a metaphor were former common grazing areas in England. A herder who grazed an additional sheep could accrue all the benefits of doing so from increased mutton or wool production, while the cost, in terms of damage from overgrazing, would be borne by all. In later years, Hardin referred to this discrepancy as “privatizing profits and commonizing costs.”

Hardin concluded:

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

What most concerned Hardin was population increasing without limit in a finite biosphere, and the ruin this would entail for all, including the biosphere itself. In a borderless “One World,” those individuals, religions, clans, tribes or countries that exercised reproductive restraint in recognition of limits would inexorably be displaced by those that did not. “Conscience is self-eliminating,” insisted Hardin.

The unmanaged commons that can be degraded by the flawed economic logic Hardin identified include the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fisheries, national parks, an entire country or any so-called common property resource.

Today, the most salient issue in which the “tragedy of the commons” is playing out is climate change. For the past two decades, the United Nations has tried to herd 200 disunited nations toward a binding commitment to combat climate change. It is much worse than trying to herd cats. All acknowledge that we may collectively be rushing toward ruin, but few are willing to take meaningful steps to curtail their carbon emissions.

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” Particularly after the disastrous climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, disenchantment and cynicism overtook hope.

What course of action would Hardin have recommended? “Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” To both liberals and conservatives enamored of unfettered freedom, “coercion” is a dirty word. Yet Hardin would have been thinking more along the lines of a carbon tax:

The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.

To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that we are required to enjoy it, or even to pretend we enjoy it. Who enjoys taxes? We all grumble about them. But we accept compulsory taxes because we recognize that voluntary taxes would favor the conscienceless. We institute and (grumblingly) support taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horror of the commons.

If humanity in its folly continues to disregard this wisdom, then tragically, we will continue to drift toward climate disaster.

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