The Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin’s insight, but what he missed)

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is why it is extraordinarily difficult to halt the headlong dash towards ecological destruction. Its excuse to justify privatization is bogus. On the contrary, privatization is a pretext to disrupt existing sustainable arrangements.

The real problem is expansion. From time to time a species evolves able to exploit new resources. Humans are such a species. Due to the exponential principle, behaviour (including growth) which worked fine for many generations suddenly becomes disastrous without warning when expansion reaches limits. That moment will arrive not only suddenly, but unexpectedly soon. A typical example would be milk going sour, or a pond  where a lily, doubling in size each year, had taken 20 years to cover 1/16th of the area. Two years later, 3/4 of the pond remains free of lilies, but two more years and the pond becomes choked.

However, the worst possible strategies remain firmly in place because they were previously successful. They will normally be individualistic and aggressive as this will have enabled the winners to achieve maximum expansion. The onset of the Tragedy is sudden, but various human societies have been struggling to adapt for several centuries. Despite Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, growth remains unquestioned, world -wide, and many societies still have larger than replacement families.

A useful line of research would be how amphibians and birds eventually emerged from this phase, as clearly both were ultimately successful. So there is hope for homo sapiens. Unlike humans they could not simply develop new cultural patterns. but at least prototype amphibians and birds could only destroy themselves: they could not, like us, endanger the entire ecosphere.

But humans are still behaving badly because

No one can afford to put themselves at a temporary disadvantage.

The original essay

“The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin, Science, 162(1968):1243-1248.

explains how the worst behaved gain, temporarily, so that they are in a stronger position when the crisis occurs. Rapanui (Easter Island) was a classic fulfilment of what Hardin unknowingly predicted the first time a society with a culture which has evolved to take maximum advantage of the capacity to expand meets eco-limits,

but he failed to recognize that its lesson was limited to the end of a growth phase.

Hardin is right, but only in those specific circumstances, which happen to be global just now.

On the other hand, as Kate Raworth notes in Doughnut Economi.cs , Elinor Ostrom and Vandana Shiva misinterpret managed schemes as ‘open access’, but they too miss the cultural context of trying to prolong growth.

Why are transnational corporations (TNCs) still aggressively behaving as though resources – and ways of disposing of pollution – are limitless? The short term answer is that they are the main beneficiaries – they are not the first to suffer the ecological damage which is already hitting many communities, or the potential mass extinction of corals, or habitat loss, or unprecedented floods or droughts, wildfires . . . A longer term reason is that no one competitor can afford to be at a disadvantage, so all must go on exploiting, and selling the products to the rest of us until complete co-operation can be assured.

My Book Résumé (another Page in this blog) explains how one so-called primitive society developed strategies better suited to their new situation. It was as close as you could get to the Basic Income as was possible in a moneyless society. But we don’t know how long it took them. We do have the archaeologically excavated Easter Island as evidence of just how gruesome the transition must have been.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II reminds us that devastation is steadily advancing on many fronts.

There is further detail in a continuation ‘Page’, which includes how co-operation evolved, how the basic income can help, why privatization has become an understandable distraction, and refutation of the ‘rats’ hypothesis on Easter Island.

I must close with a plea. Wikipedia explains that it is not the place for ‘original insights’. They must be referred to, preferably by someone suitably eminent. Whilst such a compliment is gratifying, I still need the reference.

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