The ‘tragedy of the commons’ forty years on: the tragedy of enclosure

Garrett Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ was first published forty years ago, in the magazine Science. The tragedy, for Hardin, is summed up thus: “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” Many people will be aware of any number of dreadful eco-catastrophes that have occurred in the past 40 years and, seemingly, vindicated Hardin’s analysis: Exxon Valdez, the Aral Sea, the Grand Banks cod fishery, Chernobyl … Hardin seems to have been spot on.

And what is the fundamental cause of all this tragedy? In Hardin’s view, it is the burgeoning human population of the planet.

I’m always shocked by the narrow-mindedness and misanthropy Hardin expresses (“freedom to breed is intolerable”) rather than anything else at this point in the paper. Equally disturbing is Hardin’s preferred solution to the abuse of free commons prompted by overpopulation, namely “social arrangements … that create coercion of some sort”. This coercion is necessary to produce “responsibility.”

I don’t believe that more than a handful of environmentalists subscribe to such fascist fantasies, though greens must always remain alive to the possibility, in a major ecological crisis, of an authoritarian response by others.

Interestingly, though, an alternative and far more reasonable-sounding solution to the tragedy was touched upon several times by Hardin in his article, and this now seems to be rapidly coming to pass. That solution is privatisation, the enclosure of the commons, either as a transfer of ownership or an allocation of use rights. Writing 40 years ago, Hardin wasn’t to know of all the clever ways of creating property rights in land, air and water that were yet to be devised, but now we are well aware of the fully tradeable possibilities: emission permits, water rights, mitigation banking, and so on.

But does all this privatisation actually do anything about the tragedy of the commons? Is there any evidence of these enclosures producing significant change in the state of the planet or of human well-being?

While it certainly relabels the commons, privatisation provides no certainty about resolving the central tragedy of ecological destruction. The market has only one concern, and that is not it. So whether most greens actually support the continued process of enclosure is of great significance, as it cuts to the heart of the fundamental question that now faces the green movement: Do greens really believe that more capitalism is the solution to the ecological crisis? Or is capitalism actually the engine of the crisis?

Peter Hay writes that what Hardin has overlooked throughout his paper is a sense of community. Yet Hardin almost gets there when he writes that “we are locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest,’ so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers.” The real tragedy, therefore, is the dominance of self-interest and the profit motive over community well-being.

Maybe it would be better to speak once again of the tragedy of enclosure.

Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave

Of labour’s rights, and left the poor a slave;

And memory’s pride, ere want to wealth did bow,

Is both the shadow and the substance now.

For with the poor scared freedom bade farewell,

And fortune-hunters totter where they fell;

They dreamed of riches in the rebel scheme

And find too truly that they did but dream.

from Enclosure, by John Clare

References to print sources

Peter Hay (2002) Main currents in western environmental thought (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press), p.177.

Excerpt from Enclosure, by John Clare (English poet, 1793-1864) in: James Reeves (1954) Selected poems of John Clare (London: Heinemann), pp.22-23.

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