The Tragedy of the Commons: Hardin v Ostrom

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is the reason it is proving extraordinarily difficult to halt the headlong dash towards ecological destruction. Its use as a ploy to justify privatization misses the central problem. In a culture which has grown dependent on expansion competition will be an important feature, therefore

No one can afford to put themselves at a disadvantage.

The original essay

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

is available on the internet, but the first four paragraphs of the book résumé page on this weblog explains the basic case. Even more briefly, if economic activity is expanding within a limited environment, the first to rein back their actions do nothing to preserve that environment, they merely put themselves at a disadvantage. The worst behaved gain, temporarily, so that they are in a stronger position when the crisis occurs. The world currently faces an ecological crisis, specifically climate change, though David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II reminds us that devastation is steadily advancing on other fronts. Only unanimous agreement will suffice to stop this Tragedy.

In this ecological context, privatization is a terrible answer, but 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 are  quoted as pointing 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 has pointed out in Doughnut Economics‘ that the successful ‘commons’ cited by Ostrom were not open access. They were carefully managed co-operative schemes.

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.

Ostrom and Shiva misinterpret managed schemes as ‘open access’, but more importantly, they miss the cultural context.

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.

I make no apology for repeating that I am terrified of the implications of the retreating arctic ice sheet. Much faith was pinned on the Copenhagen conference in December 2009, and even more on the Paris Agreement on Climate change in December 2015. But we can no more stop economic growth before it is too late than the Easter Islanders could stop felling trees. Or can we? Privatization is the worst possible course as long as the culture remains growth based. 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.

This page is adapted from a post I published in November 2012. Updated February 2017 after the new USA administration  took office, and again in November 2017, after  reading ‘Doughnut Economics‘ by Kate Raworth, and ‘This changes Everything‘ by Naomi Klein.

Raworth and Klein seem to have the same limited understanding of the ‘Tragedy‘ as Hardin and Ostrom, who have opposing opinions. Hydraulic fracturing, over-fishing and water privatization are abuses of open access. On the other hand for ten years as CEO of Exxonmobil Rex Tillerson funded a campaign of climate denial lies, yet as Secretary of State in the Trump administration, he is urging support for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. I think he understands the ‘Tragedy‘ well enough.


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