Once Again: ‘The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons’

A reply to criticisms and questions about my article on Garrett Hardin’s influential essay

By Ian Angus

The response to my recent article, “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons,” has been very encouraging. It prompted a small flood of emails to my inbox, was reposted on many websites and blogs around the world, and has been discussed in a variety of online forums.

The majority of the comments were positive, but many readers challenged my critique of Garrett Hardin’s very influential 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” A gratifying number wrote serious and thoughtful criticisms. While they differed in specifics, these responses consistently made one or more of these three points:

  • How can you say that the tragedy of the commons is a myth? Look at the ecological destruction around us. Isn’t that tragic?
  • It doesn’t matter if Hardin’s account of the historical commons was wrong. He wasn’t writing history: he just used the commons as a model, or a metaphor.
  • Hardin wasn’t rejecting all commons, just “unmanaged commons.” A “managed commons” would not be subject to the tragedy.

This article responds to those points. Except under the first heading, I’ve tried to avoid repeating arguments I made in the first article, so if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you read it here first.

How can you say that?

Some respondents described ecological horrors and catastrophes — vanished fisheries, poisoned rivers, greenhouse gases, and more — and then said, in various ways, “The destruction of the world we all share is a terrible tragedy. How can you call it a myth?”

This question reflects an understandable problem with terminology. When Hardin wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons,” he wasn’t using the word “tragedy” in its normal everyday sense of a sad or unfortunate event. I tried to explain this in my article:

“Hardin used the word ‘tragedy’ as Aristotle did, to refer to a dramatic outcome that is the inevitable but unplanned result of a character’s actions. He called the destruction of the commons through overuse a tragedy not because it is sad, but because it is the inevitable result of shared use of the pasture.”

So the point is not whether ecological destruction is real. Of course it is. The point is, did Hardin’s essay correctly explain why that destruction is taking place? Is there something about human nature that is inimical to shared resources? Hardin said yes, and I say that’s a myth.

But it was only a model!

During the 1970s and 1980s, Hardin’s description of the historical commons was so thoroughly debunked by historians and anthropologists that he resorted to denying that he ever meant to be historically accurate. In 1991, he claimed that his account was actually a “hypothetical model” and “whether any particular case is a materialization of that model is a historical question — and of only secondary importance.” (Hardin 1991)

Similarly, an academic who called Hardin “one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century” wrote that his description of the traditional commons was a “thought experiment,” so criticism of his historical errors is irrelevant. (Elliot 2003)

But Hardin offered no such qualification in his 1968 essay, or in the many books and articles he wrote on related subjects in the next 20 years. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In a 1977 essay, for example, Hardin referred explicitly to “the way the common pasture lands of England were converted to private property,” by Parliamentary Enclosure Acts in the 1700s and 1800s. These Acts, he wrote, “put an end to the tragedy of the commons in this aspect of agriculture.” That’s a very explicit statement about historical facts — there’s nothing “hypothetical” about it. (Hardin 1977: p. 46)

So Hardin’s later claim that historical facts don’t matter was an attempt to rewrite his own history. He only claimed the story was “just a model” after it had been thoroughly disproved.

But it was only a metaphor!

In his 1968 essay and many subsequent articles, Hardin lumped together very different social situations and problems, labelled them all “commons” and claimed that the “tragedy of the commons” explained them all. He argued that the destruction of the historical commons explained the collapse of fisheries, overcrowding in US national parks, air and water pollution, “distracting and unpleasant advertising signs,” overpopulation, and even “mindless music” in shopping malls.

While his account is often labelled a metaphor, Hardin didn’t say that those situations were similar to commons. He said they were commons, and he repeatedly referred to their problems not as similar to but as aspects of the tragedy of the commons.

If all of those things were commons, then the fact that he was wrong about the historical “tragedy” completely undermines his core argument.

In reality, however, none of the examples he mentions are “commons” in any meaningful sense. Shopping malls and billboard locations are private property, with access controlled by the owners. National Parks are managed or mismanaged by government bureaucrats. Unmanaged shared resources like air and water are being polluted by giant corporations, not by “rational herdsmen.” And Hardin’s claim that population growth results from a “commons in breeding” is just plain bizarre.

There’s no evidence that Hardin meant the “tragedy” to be seen as “only a metaphor” — but if he did, it was a very poor metaphor indeed.

He really meant the “unmanaged commons”

Several people suggested that Hardin was really criticizing “unmanaged commons,” and thus presumably favoured a “managed commons.” The problem with that idea is that Hardin clearly thought that “managed commons” was a contradiction in terms.

In his original 1968 essay Hardin wrote that a commons “if justifiable at all, is only justifiable under conditions of low-population density.” As population grew, “the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.” The “tragedy of the commons” could only be avoided by abandoning the commons: either by converting it to private property, or by imposing external controls that effectively eliminate the sharing of resources.

He repeated that argument many times in later articles and books. In 1985, for example:

“A commons is a resource to which a population has free and unmanaged access: it contrasts with private property (access only to the owner) and with socialized property (access to which is controlled by managers appointed by some political unit).” (Hardin 1985: p. 90)

In short, Hardin defined the commons as unmanaged — so the claim that he was arguing for “managed commons” doesn’t make sense. When he argued for management, he was arguing for enclosing the commons.

He was more explicit in an article written to mark the 30th anniversary of his original essay: “A ‘managed commons’ describes either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise.” (Hardin, 1998) Since he equated socialism with bureaucratic state control, it is clear that for him the “managed commons” was not a commons at all.

Several readers said they understood that Hardin later changed his mind, that he said the tragedy only occurred in “unmanaged commons.” One pointed to this sentence, in a speech Hardin gave in 1980:

“As a result of discussions carried out during the past decade I now suggest a better wording of the central idea: Under conditions of overpopulation, freedom in an unmanaged commons brings ruin to all.” (Hardin 1980)

Note, however, that Hardin only says that this is “better wording.” There is nothing in this restatement of his “central idea” that doesn’t appear in the original essay. Far from recanting, he was trying to be more explicit.

In any event, as we’ve seen, five years later Hardin still defined the commons as unmanaged, so it’s evident that he only added the word “unmanaged” in 1980 to clarify his argument, not to change it.

(Nor did the addition of “under conditions of overpopulation” add anything to what he wrote in 1968. Since Hardin believed that overpopulation was the biggest problem in the third world countries where most commons-based communities exist today, that qualification just reinforced his general anti-commons argument.)

What does “unmanaged” mean?

While Hardin’s later articles did not revise his original argument fundamentally, they did expand it in a way that provides an important insight into the way he thought about commons-based communities. In the 1980 speech quoted above, he accepted that an unmanaged commons can work if (a) “the informal power of shame” is used to keep people in line, and (b) “the community does not exceed about 150 people.”

As evidence for these apparently arbitrary requirements, he cited the example of Hutterite religious communes. Between forty and fifty thousand people live in such communities in western Canada and the U.S.: they hold all property in common, and communities normally divide in two when the population reaches 150 or so.

The issue of size is a red herring: many shared resource communities are much larger than the limit the Hutterites have chosen. But what’s truly remarkable here is that Hardin classified Hutterite colonies as unmanaged, with the “informal power of shame” as its only means of staving off the tragedy of the commons. Compare that to this account of Hutterite governance in Canada:

“Each colony elects an executive council from the managers of various enterprises, and together with the colony minister, the executive deals with important matters that will be brought before the assembly (all baptized male members — in effect, men 20 years of age and older). Although women have an official subordinate status, their informal influence on colony life is significant. They hold managerial positions in the kitchen, kindergarten, the purchase of dry goods, and vegetable production.” (Ryan 1999: p. 1125)

Obviously, the word “unmanaged” simply doesn’t apply to Hutterite communities. The fact that Hardin thought it did shows how limited his conceptions were. Anything that wasn’t either privately owned or controlled by the state was, by definition, “unmanaged.”

As Derek Wall points out, such blindness to non-capitalist social structures is widespread in mainstream social science:

“The commons is important because it provides a way of regulating activity without the state or the market…. Throughout history, the commons has been the dominant form of regulation providing an alternative almost universally ignored by economists who are reluctant to admit that substitutes to the market and the state even exist.” (Wall 2005: p. 184)

Hutterite colonies don’t just share resources — they democratically organize and govern their communities to manage those resources. That was also true of the historical commons in Europe, and it’s true of Indigenous societies in many parts of the world today. As historian Peter Linebaugh writes:

“To speak of the commons as if it were a natural resource is misleading at best and dangerous at worst — the commons is an activity and, if anything, it expresses relationships in society that are inseparable from relations to nature.” (Linebaugh 2008: p. 279)

Hardin, like the economists Wall describes, looked at the world with capitalist blinders on. As a result, he couldn’t recognize a community-managed non-tragic commons when it was right before his eyes.

* * * * * * *

References

  • Angus, Ian. 2008. “The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons.” Climate and Capitalism, August 28, 2008. http://climateandcapitalism.com/?p=513
  • Elliot, Herschel. 2003. “The Revolutionary Import of Garrett Hardin’s Work.”
    http://tinyurl.com/5tokrk
  • Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
    http://tinyurl.com/o827
  • Hardin, Garrett. 1977. “Denial and Disguise.” in Garrett Hardin and John Baden, editors, Managing the Commons. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company. pp 45-52
  • Hardin, Garrett. 1980. “An ecolate view of the human predicament.”
    http://tinyurl.com/t98c
  • Hardin, Garrett. 1985. Filters Against Folly, How to Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists and the Merely Eloquent. New York: Viking Press.
  • Hardin, Garrett. 1991. “The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons: Population and the Disguises of Providence.” in Robert V. Andelson, editor, Commons Without Tragedy:Protecting the Environment from Over-Population – A New Approach. Savage MD: Barnes & Noble
  • Hardin, Garrett. 1998. “Extension of the Tragedy of the Commons.”
    http://tinyurl.com/bow6h
  • Linebaugh, Peter. 2008. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Los Angeles: University of California Press
  • Wall, Derek. 2005. Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements. London: Pluto Books
  • Ryan, John. 1999. “Hutterites.” in James Marsh, editor, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Year 2000 Edition. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, pp. 1124-1125
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grampa
4 years 8 months ago

The problem with Hardin is well outlined by Ian but also, Hardin doesn’t really understand the varieties of commons. Even in Mister Capitalism himself, John Locke, he discusses two different kinds of community that have different effects on the commons, and each has to do with property relations. Positive community is based on survival – people take from the commons materials necessary for survival. In this form, the king can own everything, and people use it as a commons. Furthermore the membership to community can be limited and their participation modulated by necessity. In a negative community, no one owns anything and people take what they will. Property simply means the right of exclusive possession to the objects which people take from the commons. There is no right to be included in the commons, merely a right to control over what one takes from the commons.

This is the kind of commons Hardin harps on. He clearly had no real appreciation for community, for it is the community that defines the commons, and different communities create different forms of commons, and there is nothing inherent to all commons that means any particular commons must suffer a tragedy of exploitation, as particular commons’ are capable of formulating their own rules of engagement and use bound by the community using it.

Why this is such a hard idea for some people to understand I find puzzling and depressing.

Chris Rodgers
5 years 1 month ago

I don’t know if we have become too many or come to far to remember what we once knew but I have no doubt that at the moment we have forgotten what it is like to be completely and totally dependent on the well being of our community for our very life. And when a person is in that position, it is impossible to act selfishly and greedily because we do not survive that way. We die.

We are social and cultural, that is our genetics. For ages and ages we survived because we knew how to do a good job of living within a group that made it possible to survive. I admit that when populations numbers go up we have problems with people who are not in our group. In that case we can become tough and competitive. But we have, for the most part for thousands of years come up with numerous systems to manage the sharing of our resources. We had no other choice. Obviously we succeeded because we managed to get to this time and place. How do you think we did it? By selfishly trying to out consume our neighbor?

Some systems were better than others. Some lasted much longer than others. Some were destroyed by external changes. But boy were we inventive! Of course we used social pressure and rules, sometimes religion, sometimes myths, sometimes math and early science but these sytems weren’t imposed from outside, they were created over time by the ones who needed each other and needed the system to work.

There is even a possibility that we are just a bit too good at it and as our population grew we may have had a more and more detrimental effect on the natural environment we used. With the discovery of oil, we quickly took advantage of that dense resource and increased our population rapidly.

We may possibly be a bit too ingenious for the perfect well being of our natural support system, the earth. But we are smart and most of us still take care of our own, whether it is our family and family connections, a village, our neighborhood, a community of friends, our fellow church members, our schoolmates, a hiking club. There you have the beginnings of a network, cross memberships, relatedness within and connecting groups.

I believe our modern Capitalist consumer society has encouraged our independence and self reliance making us selfish and preoccupied with our individual likes and dislikes, wants and needs. Most watch TV and play on the computer rather than actually relate to others. We have lost touch and so no longer think about or care how our actions can effect other people. But that is not our nature. That is how we act when disconnected from our nature.

We, in recent times have never had a chance to act with neighbors to develop a system that enabled us to share a common field in a way that maximized the well being of our community. If we needed to, I bet we would jump right to it and be quite successful at it. In the end, we would share with our group a great satisfaction, as well as a sense of safety and accomplishment. We are made for it. We lived like that far longer than we have lived like this.

I personally love figuring out how to live simply, with much less waste. It feels right to connect with others who are trying to remember how to cooperatively manage the commons. I do it because it is best for the world and my fellows. Doing so stimulates my mind and creativity. I am more powerful and less passive. In many varied groups of various sizes and types, people are beginning to recreate the “commons.”

Peter Moss
5 years 1 month ago

Robert, you can’t be serious. The amount of CO2 emissions produced by all industries dwarfs those produced by individuals and their cars. Please do some research on this.

Saying we are all responsible is a way of saying therefore no one is really responsible.

Oh, and for the record, I like graffiti and don’t drive.

6 years 10 months ago

well I think Ian, you can take a little bit of credit along with elinor ostrom!

Howard Silverman
7 years 8 months ago

Nice post, Ian.

I’ve also written a reflection, “The Tragedy – 40 Years Later”:
http://www.peopleandplace.net/perspectives/67

Robert
7 years 9 months ago

“Attributing environmental problems to “the tragedy of the commons” (which means to human nature) ignores history and present-day reality. It lets the system and the people who run it off the hook.”

We all live in houses and use gas and electricity without any regard to our CO2 emissions. Just about everyone that can afford one has a car in the front drive, but how many people think twice as they chuck another 100 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere doing something really important like following their football team from one end of the country to the other?

These aren’t corporations. They are people like you and me – and we all treat the atmosphere like a global dustbin. TTOTC is alive and well and you are part of it.

Robert
7 years 9 months ago

Ian, But in this modern sick society the evidence is that very few people at any level act with a social conscience. Just look at the litter and graffiti in public places. Or try dropping your wallet in a train and see how many times it will be returned to you with its contents intact.

People cease to act as communities when they get larger than about 50 people. After that its every man for himself.

It may suit your anti-capitalist agenda to blame it all on the corporations, but it simply isn’t true. If anything the large corps need to be whiter than white in terms of pollution and at least appearing green. They have very deep pockets for anyone trying to sue them.

Robert
7 years 9 months ago

Dave, Ian – well, at least I see where you are coming from. Yes, in some mythical utterly socialist global economy, in which 6.7 billion people somehow managed to cooperate with each other at a very deep level, TTOTC would not exist. In practice the world is made up of self-interested individual players (people, families, companies, countries, etc) who privatise the profits and socialise the costs.

I can’t even get the other members of my family to turn off lights when they leave a room because they don’t have to pay the electricity bill!

To my mind the real culprit is fossil fuelled industrial society. Over the last 2 centuries we have expanded the world’s human carrying capacity by borrowing energy from the past (fossil fuel) and taking the environment from our children. This would have happened under any regime – just look at the massive increase in CO2 emissions under Soviet Russia, and now China. Humans have become the ultimate plague species and the the planet will only resume ‘normal’ operation when we are history.

http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/tre_cpe.html
http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/prc.html
http://www.energybulletin.net/node/6069

Dave Patterson
7 years 9 months ago

I wonder if Hardin, perhaps unwittingly, was engaging in one of the most popular capitalist tricks – the inversion of truth. Accusing someone else of what they themselves are guilty of. In that, there actually is a thing that we might call the tragedy of the commons, but it is not the activities of ‘the common folk’ causing the tragedy, but they are the victims. It is the few predatory humans who are always with us, currently dominated by those we identify as capitalists, who cause the tragedy by their refusal to play by the accepted norms that most civilized people play by, rules which involve moderation and sharing rather than violence and selfishness. So the predatory few abuse the commons which should be shared by all, in moderation, and thus destroy those commons, thus the tragedy. And then blame anyone but themselves. Just some thoughts.

Robert
7 years 9 months ago

Ian, You appear to fully understand and accept TTOTC in your paper entitled “Confronting the Climate Change Crsis”, when you say:

““GHG emissions are an externality; in other words, our emissions affect the lives of others. When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. This is the greatest market failure the world has seen.”
“Externality” is a term capitalist economists use when capitalist corporations don’t pay for the damage they cause. Pollution is the perfect example — individual corporations pollute, but society as a whole bears the cost.”

What you are REALLY saying is that you don’t accept capitalism or the freedom of corporation to pursue profit. A reasonable viewpoint if you are a Marxist, but not a route to dismissing TTOTC.

Robert
7 years 9 months ago

I find it bizarre that anyone should challenge the basic concept of TTOTC. It is so simple that a child can see it. It is also the reason why mankind is very unlikely (IMHO) to get to grips with curbing CO2 emissions – because tha marginal utility of emitting CO2 to the individual (or even the individual country) will always outweigh the shared cost to the global population.

You might not like the range of “solutions” to TTOTC (more private ownership, more regulation, etc) but that does not mean the theory is wrong.

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