The Tragedy of the Commons: Hardin v Ostrom

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is why it is extraordinarily difficult to halt the headlong dash towards ecological destruction. Its excuse to justify privatization misses the central problem:

From time to time a species evolves able to exploit new resources. Humans are such a species. But the strategies to take maximum advantage of that new ability become disastrous when expansion reaches limits. Due to the exponential principle, that moment will be reached not only suddenly, but unexpectedly soon.

However, the worst possible strategies remain firmly in place. They will normally be individualistic and aggressive as this approach will have enabled the winners to achieve maximum expansion. The onset of the Tragedy is sudden, but various human societies have been banging their heads against this ceiling for several centuries. Despite Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, growth remains unquestioned, world -wide.

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 us they could not simply develop new cultural patterns.

But humans have not yet done this because

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

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 droughts . . . 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.

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

Busy readers can stop now. What follows is more detail on the evolution of co-operation, why privatization has become an understandable distraction, and refutation of the ‘rats’ hypothesis on Easter Island.

All Hardin advises in the above link is “Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” Neither privatization nor capitalism played any part in the catastrophe which happened on Easter Island (see below).

A precarious, almost unanimous agreement was reached at the ‘Paris’ Agreement in December 2015, but the 2017 Trump administration in the USA appears to threaten that (near) unanimity.

At first sight, the ‘Tragedy’ is contradicted by the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’

Robert Axelrod goes into more detail in his book The Evolution of Co-operation

The example given is of two individuals who will gain marginally if they can trust each other, but each will gain more if the other keeps her/his word, and they renege. Axelrod shows that if the two individuals expect to meet in future, then co-operation is the best strategy, hence the evolution of co-operation.

But what if there are hundreds of individuals, who must all trust each other? If anyone thinks that what happened on Rapanui (Easter Island) is not relevant for us, the real life situation for the Easter Islanders was the same as it is now globally: a large number of separate individuals or groups must all be able to trust each other to stop destroying the ecosphere due to our competitive, consumerist culture. The Easter Islanders failed this test dismally.

Globally the problem is far worse than on Rapanui, where there were only 11 separate clans. All independent nation states, and countless private companies, many of whom have been successful due to their aggressive methods, must unanimously show restraint in the face of ecological limits. A minority who continue to ignore limits, or renege on agreements to observe limits gain a competitive advantage at the expense of the rest – in the short term –  and  are therefore in a stronger position when the inevitable crunch comes.

Elinor Ostrom and Vandana Shiva pointed out that the ‘Tragedy’ was used as a pretext for the privatization of former commons, notably the Highland clearances in the Eighteenth century. However, Kate Raworth notes in Doughnut Economi.cs that the successful ‘commons’ cited by Ostrom were not open access. They were carefully managed co-operative schemes. Ostrom and Shiva misinterpret managed schemes as ‘open access’, but more importantly, they miss the cultural context of trying to prolong growth.

Up to date examples could include the aggressive privatization of water by Nestlé., but significant current examples of excessive exploitation of open access are hydraulic fracturing and fishing, neither of which involve privatizing formerly common resources.

But the Tragedy is not limited to open access. The same principle applies to over-production of steel, or cars, or hydraulic fracturing, as limits are approached. The first to cease production merely weakens their economic strength in the here and now.

The validity of the ’Tragedy’ in an expanding culture as forcibly illustrated on Rapanui remains. For five centuries the Easter Islanders could take room for expansion for granted. Even there, by the time Captain Cook took an interpreter in 1774 the hungry and impoverished descendants of their desperate, and hence briefly cannibal ancestors were beginning to develop strategies that Ostrom and Shiva would recognize. They and Axelrod are right – but not in the short term.

Hardin himself seems to have missed the significance of a growth based culture, and to have been unaware that his thesis had been accurately demonstrated. Due to its small size and total isolation, Rapanui was a classic fulfilment of what Hardin accidentally predicted the first time a society with a culture which has evolved to take maximum advantage of the capacity to expand meets eco-limits. Hardin is right, but only in those specific circumstances, which happen to be global just now.

In passing, I must refute the claim that the ‘Tragedy‘ does not explain the fate of Easter Island: it was caused by rats. Let us assume for the sake of argument that this hypothesis is correct. It is still an example of an invasive species taking temporary but catastrophic advantage of the ability to expand. Here is Jared Diamond’s own response to that theory.

But we can no more stop economic growth before it is too late than the Easter Islanders could stop felling trees. Or can we? I am indebted to Richard Wilkinson for a proposal more specific than ’mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’, based on actual precedents:

“The more equitable the system for the distribution of necessities, the greater the identity of interest within the society when faced by ecological problems.”

The book from which this unwitting advocacy of the Citizens’ Basic Income (the main thrust of this weblog) is taken predates internet links: Wilkinson, Richard G. (1973) Poverty and Progress Methuen, London, p48.

What Elinor Ostrom and Vandana Shiva illustrate will become the norm, but their in due course valuable contributions are currently doing more harm than good if they are used to play down the seriousness of the threat posed by the ‘Tragedy‘. The End of the World as we know it need not be at hand, but on current trends, it is.


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