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Are the commons truly tragic? 

Since the late 1960s, the idea of a “tragedy of the commons” has influenced global policy-making and the studies of economics and environmental science. This article explores the legitimacy of this ideology, and presents alternatives such as those advocated for by renowned economist and activist Elinor Ostrom. 


WHAT IS THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS?


In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin published a landmark paper in which he introduced his idea of “the tragedy of the commons,” a concept which would leave an indelible mark on ecological and economical thinking. 


One of the most-quoted articles ever to appear in a scientific journal, The Tragedy of the Commons advocates for privatisation as a solution to the environmental exploitation which has defined the last few centuries of human history. It is a thesis which is still taught in environmental science and ecology courses today, and even just googling its title returns hundreds of study guides for it. 


The central tenet of Hardin’s argument was anecdotal, and the source of his paper’s title: the ‘commons’ of England, which were swathes of land which from the mediaeval period well into the Victorian era were owned by lords, but largely left to tenants to farm. He borrowed this idea from the 19th century political economist William Forster Lloyd. 


Lloyd had written of his observations of cattle fields as a rebuttal to his contemporary Adam Smith’s concept of the ‘invisible hand’ - the idea that rational actions under the free market will benefit society as a whole, even when made purely out of self-interest. He disagreed with Smith that selfish actions contributed to public good, and he drew upon the commons as an example. 


According to Lloyd, in a field where any farmer could hold his cows, a farmer faced with the choice of adding an extra cow at the risk of overgrazing the field would always choose to add the cow, as he would reap 100% of the benefit and only a small portion of the cost (as the negative consequences of doing so would be shared out amongst each farmer) - a slight decrease in everyone’s quantity of crops and quality of meat would be outweighed by his own personal gain of an additional cow. 


This logic, Hardin argued, could be applied to any resource - national rangelands, national parks, even extrapolated to nature as a whole. And so, the “tragedy of the commons” was born, influencing decades of policies promoting either privatisation or government regulation for natural resources. 


WAS HARDIN RIGHT?

In fact, many historians dispute Hardin’s claims, suggesting that the commons achieved sustainability and stability, partially due to the cooperativity of their farmers. Susan Cox’s 1985 paper ‘No Tragedy on the Commons’ argues that rather than the commons declining because of their collective nature, they declined because of land reforms which shifted ownership into the hands of the few, rather than the many. During their years of success, decisions about commons management tended to be made democratically - at village meetings, or at manorial courts, with a 12-person jury. 


Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences, left behind a lifetime of work in opposition to Hardin’s ideology - an “environmental optimism” which eschewed the notion that only privatisation or state control of natural resources could save them. 


Instead, Ostrom advocated for bottom-up, localised resource management - that is, putting the power to manage an environment into the hands of the people who depend on it most. 


In places like the American West, where the federal government owns 46.4% of land (as opposed to the 4.2% of land which is owned federally of the other states) a one-size-fits-all approach is applied liberally to the management of vastly different landscapes, meaning that their biodiversity is not conserved effectively. 


According to Ostrom, it would be foolhardy to expect a single solution to climate change, especially from global powerhouses like the US, UK and China, the governments of which have historically been reticent to remedy the crises caused not in small part through their own emissions. 


BIG GOVERNMENT, LITTLE IMPACT


Hardin’s theory - and the unquestioning acceptance of it - portrays governments or private landowners as all-knowing, benevolent conservationists opposed in their aims to the stupid, greedy public. This is in stark contrast to the beliefs of most eco-activist groups, who can point to decades of political inaction on the environment


Even when actions are taken, regulation does not necessarily ensure long-term benefit. Protected areas have been under scrutiny from scientists in recent years as “paper parks” due to the inefficient enforcement of regulations resulting in the continuation of harmful activities in them. 


Part of this is due to a lack of education and engagement with the communities who depend on the resources from these areas - for example, fishermen in the Global South, who, when restricted from catching fish in “no-take” areas, lose their sole source of income with no alternative. Enforcing protective legislation without giving the poorest members of society access to enough credit and wealth to change their livelihood doesn’t prevent exploitation, it merely makes it illegal. 


PRIVATISING CONSERVATION


Hardin also presented private ownership as an alternative solution to land exploitation, stating that “under a system of private property…the men who own property recognise their responsibility to care for it.” 


Theoretically, land owners would want to preserve and take care of their land in order to maximise the benefits from it for as long as possible. However, one need only to look at fossil fuel extraction - conducted on private or public-but-leased land - to ascertain that this is not always the case. 


Devastating consequences can occur even when conservation organisations take ownership of land. The WWF (World Wildlife Fund) has been accused of human rights violations across the globe in having knowledge of murders, rapes and acts of torture committed by their “ecoguards” but covering that knowledge up. According to Buzzfeed News, the WWF funded “vicious paramilitary groups” in their war against poaching. 


Not only is this a massive violation of civil liberties, it also fails to address the economic reasons behind poaching, which despite increased enforcement is on the rise in places like South Africa, where 499 rhinos were killed in 2023. Going after low-level poachers is similar to arresting street drug dealers to stop illegal drug supply in that it focuses on the visible rather than the more-powerful invisible, in this case the poaching trafficking industry which facilitates the trade of illegally sold wildlife across the globe. 


State ownership of land has also been susceptible to similar abuses of power. The Serengeti national park has seen the violent expulsion of the ethnic Maasai group, who have been repeatedly displaced from their homeland since the 1950s, ostensibly to “protect” the land, although it has since been opened up to tourism and trophy hunting.

Hardin’s view of conservation fails to take into account that private owners and governments are also liable to self-interest, and that actually, with a blank cheque to do what they want, there is no social pressure stopping them from corrupting the land in the ways he warned against. 


But Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” theory actually fit perfectly with his other beliefs. Hardin opposed population growth (he believed this was one of the key takeaways from the tragedy of the commons) but not universally - he targeted his overpopulation rhetoric specifically at countries in the Global South and vehemently opposed US famine relief programs. 


For Hardin, it was easy to reconcile his beliefs of Western intervention (in seizing control of land to “protect” it) and non-intervention (in allowing people to die in their millions) in the Global South, likely due to his own prejudices against people of colour. 


He was a eugenicist, who supported sterilisation of those who did not live up to his ideas of moral and intellectual character - of course, this meant disabled people and also people of colour. It was Hardin’s view that the white race was intellectually superior to others, and so when he asserted that the “freedom to breed will bring ruin to us all,” he meant specifically the freedom of other races.


Hardin’s far-right racist beliefs have been swept under the rug to defend decades of neoliberal policy across the globe, becoming the “scientific foundation” of moves by the World Bank and IMF to privatise public property for the supposed good of the planet. But in these acts of policy Hardin’s racist legacy in fact lives on - the exertion of control by the Global North over the Global South fits perfectly with his viewpoint of differing racial intellect. 


COMMUNITY CONSERVATION


Meanwhile, there are successful collective action groups across the globe who have ensured the protection of nature. When Richard Pollnac, an anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island, studied the qualities which made marine-protected areas actually successful rather than “paper parks,” he found that one of the factors influencing their success was a high level of decision-making taken by the local community. 


In her work, Ostrom explored the idea of polycentrism - multiple, overlapping decision-making centres working together to resolve local issues. Ostrom’s lens of research focused on polycentrism in response to climate change. Polycentrism integrates different types of knowledge - such as scientific, local, political and indigenous, by bringing together various groups to make decisions rather than putting that decision in the hands of a single group or individual. 


Whilst Hardin’s ideology posited that individuals make decisions independent of others and entirely out of self-interest, studies have shown that people actually make decisions based on social cues and community behaviours, including when it comes to natural resources. Humans are not “by disposition egocentric, parsimonious and atomistic” (as Jentoft, McKay and Wilson believe we are characterised as by rational choice theory), in fact, studies have shown that toddlers as young as 14 months help adult strangers with tasks like reaching for objects, and at 18 months, with tasks like opening doors. 


And this can also be seen in community-based initiatives designed to protect the planet: from communities in Malaysia educating local fishermen on destructive fishing techniques, replanting coral and removing fishing nets, to the Indigenous Guardians of Canada, monitoring and managing protected land. 


Community is a strength, not a weakness, and in order to face the behemoth global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, we will need to learn to embrace it. Only by working together and engaging people from the grassroots level will we achieve meaningful and long-lasting conservation. 



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