Reith Lectures on War (Tragedy of the Commons)

I look forward with interest to Margaret Macmillan’s BBC Reith Lectures on why humans fight, starting next Tuesday  26th June. Does she mention the Tragedy of the Commons? It does not appear in the above linked notice.

I am writing before having the opportunity to hear Professor Macmillan because I have already arrived at what is for me a convincing explanation for war, and it is one which has urgent implications for a world-wide mindset change if we are to avoid ecological meltdown.

If the Tragedy is indeed at the core of Professor Macmillan’s thesis, it will be a welcome revelation similar to the one I received last week. After years of apparently being the only person to link the Basic income to limiting economic activity, I read of Lewis and Masden’s book The Human Planet.

But another recent disappointment was Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Ecomomics. As I say in my blog of 13thAugust 2017, I was impressed by her insights, but even though she thoroughly approves of a Basic Income, she misses its significance where it really matters – being agnostic about growth.

I may well similarly gain from Professor Macmillan’s lectures, but if, lIke Raworth, she misses something vital, then expect another blog post here entitled

“What’s missing from Professor Macmillan’s view on the causes of war”.

According to the above link, Professor Macmillan asks: When did humans first start fighting? Anyone who has read my Weblog Page on the Tragedy of the Commons can skip the next three paragraphs.

Humans who would today pass unnoticed except as immigrants in most places, first appeared less than 2 million years ago. Genetic mutations enabled them to take advantage of opportunities which their ancestors could not.

Being capable of cultural patterns, they quickly developed strategies best suited to exploiting these new opportunities. For a while, such communities would expand exponentially. But the point at which limits to expansion is reached is quite sudden. The common example is of a pond where a lily has taken say 20 years to cover 1/16th of the pond, doubling every year. Two years later, the pond is still three quarters lily-free. Afrer two more years, it is choked.

But the behaviour patterns which had served humans well since time immemorial suddenly become the worst possible strategies for sustainability. They do not change overnight. Rapanui (Easter Island) illustrates this pattern graphically.

Although this Tragedy must have occurred countless times, many so called primitive societies would eventually develop patterns of behaviour better suited to preserving what was left of their environment. Unfortunately, any neighbouring tribe which had not yet done so would be at a numerical advantage, so only completely isolated communities could develop a sustainable way of life – until outsiders arrived.

Unfortunately our globalized world is bedevilled by the neoliberal philosophy. I discussed this in my blog of 16th November 2014. In her book the Origin of Capitalism: a longer View  (Verso, 2002), Ellen Meiksins Wood explains that the monetization of transactions in the late mediaeval period led to new opportunities, which quickly became  imperatives. We are still locked – globally – into such imperatives. The ‘Paris’ Climate Change Agreement of 2015 was an attempt to  reach global agreement, but economic growth remains unquestioned.

Professor Macmillan argues that war is a normal part of human behaviour. Therefore I do not think she sees the Tragedy as central. I say war is an inevitable feature of a society which has not yet adjusted from growth to sustainability, either in sheer numbers, or per capita consumption.

If I am wrong, I shall apologize, but if I am right, this needs to go viral, at least to everyone who listens to the Reith Lectures. Come to think of it, my message to Kate Raworth could do to go viral as well.

One response to “Reith Lectures on War (Tragedy of the Commons)

  1. Hi Clive,

    The Tragedy of the Commons is not a universal explanation. It certainly does not apply to 20th Century Political Economy.
    This is more the Stiff

    Regarding War and Theory regarding Confilct try this.
    Lecture Two
    The Problem of Warfare’s Origins
    Garrett G. Fagan, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History,
    The Pennsylvania State University
    Essential Reading:
    Guilaine and Zammit, Origins of War.
    Keeley, War Before Civilization.
    Kelly, Warless Societies and the Origins of War, pp. 75–161.
    Supplemental Reading:
    Dawson, The First Armies, pp. 22–73.
    Keegan, A History of Warfare, pp. 76–126.
    LeBlanc, Constant Battles, especially pp. 77–198.
    Wrangham and Peterson, Demonic Males.
    Questions to Consider:
    1. How does the definitional issue affect the interpretation of archaeological
    evidence? Can the physical evidence be interpreted unambiguously?
    2. Is modern ethnography applicable to prehistoric evidence for warfare? Are
    criticisms of such a procedure justified?

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