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The Commons Don't Have To Be So Tragic

05/24/2013 08:09 EDT | Updated 07/24/2013 05:12 EDT

"The Tragedy of the Commons" is like a desolate nursery rhyme, dogmatic economic fallacy, and apathetic environmental apology all bounded into one twisted fable.

Titans of industry and government policymakers alike have invoked its "insights" as vindication for a whole laundry list of derogatory actions. In Canada alone, the commons myth has been employed to rationalise everything from granting private enterprises purchasable "permits" to pollute our precious air and water supplies, to invalidating Indigenous land claims and privatising even the most basic of social services.

Originating from an infamous 1968 essay by American ecologist Dr. Garrett Hardin in the prestigious journal Science, "The Tragedy of the Commons" has been quoted or cited in hundreds of books and thousands of articles, making the seminal work a "dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues."

In essence, Hardin's thesis can be stripped down to a singular notion -- the pursuit of self-interest in an open-access commons leads to ruin. Thus while people know that depleting a common resource can hinder societal wellbeing, without controls on access and use of the underlying resource, a tragedy of the commons is inescapable.

Of course, Hardin wasn't the first to highlight the paradox of self-interest in the commons. He was however, one of the first to popularise the metaphor of the commons as a way of rationalising environmental degradation that could be applied to virtually any natural resource -- a herd of animals, a fishery, a lake, an airshed. In all cases, the underlying economic assumption remains the same -- if access and use in the commons are not limited in some way, over-use is certain as demand grows.

This diagnosis of inevitable overexploitation is often identified as the rationale for the current regime of prescriptive regulations we adopt in order to keep a collective resource from befalling the destructive fate awaiting any open-access commons -- a pattern our leaders have followed in environmental policy for the past half-century.

And why wouldn't scholars and professionals in the practice of designing futures for others embrace Hardin's assumptions as sacred text? The tragedy of the commons reiterates the need for centralised environmental management.

Hardin argues practices such as overexploitation, privatisation, and monopolisation are natural -- even inevitable. Therefore, officials can brazenly establish regulatory economic and environmental regimes that limit open access to public goods in a "virtuous" attempt to curtail that inescapable tragedy of communal deterioration.

The problem here is Hardin -- and all those policymakers and corporate magnates who use his work as the foundation for their environmental policies, make three unfounded assumptions about human nature, privatisation, and governance that when stitched together, show cracks in the "infallible" logic of the commons tragedy.

First, as Climate and Capitalism editor Ian Angus is at pains to point out, Hardin's argument rests on the predetermined speculation that for all time, "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."

Yet society is much more complicated than that -- a universal characterisation of human nature that transcends all cultural and social context is absurd. What Hardin is basing his tragedy on isn't some natural state, but the profit-driven "grow-or-die" behaviour exhibited by private interests in the capitalist economy. Disregard the profit-before-pollution paradigm, and the tragedy suddenly becomes less definite.

Second, Hardin assumes private ownership is the best way to limit environmental degradation -- "the alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate." But profit maximisation and environmentalism are all too often mutually exclusive. In reality, privatising the commons has repeatedly led to deforestation, soil erosion, overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, and the prostitution of ecosystems for profit.

As professor Sharon Beder from the University of Wollongong points out, the reason the private sector fails to manage the commons is "far from being free or operating efficiently to allocate resources in the interests of a globalising society, [the market] is dominated by a relatively small group of large multinational corporations which aim to maximise their private profit by exploiting nature and human resources."

Third, Hardin insists that the commons should be universally regulated by national and international agencies. Yet as anthropologist G.N. Appell posits, conservationist efforts of non-local government and non-government organisations are detrimental because they wilfully "impose their own economic and environmental rationality on social systems of which they have incomplete understanding and knowledge."

Thus, as Nobel-prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom stresses in "Revisiting the Commons," the overbearing control of distant bureaucrats who lack the expertise or incentives to do the job properly, end up recklessly undermining the very social capital -- shared relationships, norms, knowledge and understandings -- which have been employed by local populations to keep the commons sustainable for centuries.

Contrary to many of Hardin's claims, a local community that shares forests, fields, and waterways has a much greater incentive to safeguard their continued growth than a short-term profit maximising institution based thousands of kilometres away.

So while Hardin -- and the thousands of bureaucrats in Canada and abroad who perpetuate his doctrine, believe his tragedy of the commons to be an inevitable process of misuse which may only be slowed by absolute privatisation and universal regulation, the reality of the commons is that tragedy is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Natural resources and public goods can be managed towards a greener, healthier future if we are willing to substitute a lust for profit with a drive for sustainability, a dependence on a private few with a reliance on a collective many, and an obsession for widespread solutions with an appreciation for local knowledge and experience.

The only real tragedy would be to believe Hardin's essay to be anything but a useful political myth -- a scientific-sounding way of masking grassroots alternatives to the profit-driven paradigms that have been snubbing this planet's ecological wellbeing for half a century. In actuality, we are only prisoners of environmental apathy if we choose to be.

- Adam Kingsmith