I’ve certainly read people who quoted from Garrett Hardin’s 1968 paper in Science “The Tragedy of the Commons” often enough. It’s a cautionary tale about how, if humans are left unchecked, our selfishness will destroy the environment and the resources that are our common wealth.
But it appears that this paper has some major flaws that I’ve not seen laid out before. There are deep lines of eugenic thoughts going through it and his subsequent work. And, more importantly, it turns out that it’s a much too simplistic and dystopian view of human nature. Human nature is complicated.
This post on Aeon delves into the work of one of the chief critics of Hardin’s work:
Even before Hardin’s ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ was published, however, the young political scientist Elinor Ostrom had proven him wrong. While Hardin speculated that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided only through total privatisation or total government control, Ostrom had witnessed groundwater users near her native Los Angeles hammer out a system for sharing their coveted resource. Over the next several decades, as a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, she studied collaborative management systems developed by cattle herders in Switzerland, forest dwellers in Japan, and irrigators in the Philippines. These communities had found ways of both preserving a shared resource – pasture, trees, water – and providing their members with a living. Some had been deftly avoiding the tragedy of the commons for centuries; Ostrom was simply one of the first scientists to pay close attention to their traditions, and analyse how and why they worked.
The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions.
The essay goes on to detail examples of how this works in practice, particularly in African nations that are managing their natural resources and domestic and wild animal herds in keeping with what she suggested.
This line of thinking can be a tonic to climate change anxiety or despair, and a call to a course of action that’s been proven to work
It’s worth a read today on this, hopefully lazy, August Sunday.