(By Robert Ovetz, PhD) Barely a day goes by when I read a reference to the â€œtragedy of the commonsâ€ as an explanation for one of our many environmental crises. The surprise is that it is often coming from fellow environmentalists. Surprising? The tragedy of the commons is a concept developed by theorist Garrett Hardin to explain the damage being caused to our shared natural resources of water, plants and animals, land, air and the ocean.
Barely a day goes by when I read a reference to the “tragedy of the commons” as an explanation for one of our many environmental crises. The surprise is that it is often coming from fellow environmentalists.
The tragedy of the commons is a concept developed by theorist Garrett Hardin to explain the damage being caused to our shared natural resources of water, plants and animals, land, air and the ocean. For Hardin, who also authored the infamous “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor,” the root of the problem lay in the inherently self-serving nature of humanity. When a resource is shared in common he posited, “the rational being ”¦ seeks to maximize his gain” and is bound to exploit the common property to ones own advantage thus exhausting the resource for all of us.
Still not surprised?
Perhaps we should be.
Afterall, why do we still have ancient rainforests, ancient species that swam with the dinosaurs, fresh water or clean air? Their mere existence must be proof enough that Hardin’s theory of the tragedy of the commons is flawed.
Contrary to Hardin’s assertion about the inherent self-interest of humanity, the real tragedy is that the commons have faced a foe that has been appropriating the common assets of humanity and vanquishing timeless ecosystems in a matter of just a few centuries.
The real tragedy of the commons began with the enclosure of lands farmed in common by English peasants beginning in the 18th century in order to clear the way for industry and sever the populace from their own means of self-sufficiency in order to free up a new workforce. These same enclosures denuded the forests of Scotland—yes, Scotland once had forests—to provide wood as fuel for these factories and materials for urban slums to house the newly created workers.
The privatization of the commons is the real tragedy. Beginning with the land and forests, one by one, water, air, ocean and even our genetic code are being threatened by new enclosures. These new enclosures promise vast wealth to those that seek to exploit and own more and more of the commons while leaving the human community to shoulder the burden of their rapid depletion.
Over the past few decades we have come to learn the fatal flaw in Hardin’s hypothesis that “under a system of private property, the men who own property recognize their responsibility to care for it.” As we know from our global economic system, ownership no longer assumes geographic limitations. Once a privatized commons is exhausted and the costs passed onto the local and increasingly global communities, new commons to exploit are sought elsewhere ad infinitum. The crisis only ensued once the privateers began to run out of commons to be exhausted.
Take the ocean for example.
A recent report in the scientific journal Nature warns that since the 1950s, the number of large carnivorous fish have declined by as much as 99%. As nations increasingly expand their borders further and deeper into the ocean and rent and trade access and quotas to the remaining fishing grounds we have seen a rapid decline in ocean wildlife. The decline has been so rapid that some species of fish, mammals, seabirds and sea turtles are on the verge of extinction.
The privatization of public water supplies from Stockton, California to Cochabamba, Bolivia and the selling of quotas to polluters to continue polluting our atmosphere and wreaking havoc on our climate have now become national and international law thanks to the Kyoto Accords.
Under rules of the World Trade Organization, genetically altered food crops and biological life forms can be patented and owned. Science fiction is rapidly becoming reality.
Those who own private property continue to profit by pushing off the costs of their activities onto the rest of the community. For the first time, these costs threat the very survival of much of the biological life on our planet.
Hardin got the end result correct but missed the source of the problem. So have environmentalists who rely on the flawed theory of the tragedy of the commons.
The continuing enclosure of the commons is the real tragedy that threatens the very survival of humanity. Many traditional and indigenous communities hold shared values, beliefs and purpose which have allowed them to live in balance with the natural world upon which they have relied for their very survival for millenia.
The difference between the Moi rainforest people of West Papua, the Iroquois, and Mayan descendents of Mexico and our modern global consumer culture is significant. In traditional cultures even if a few people hunted in the community forest for selfish reasons, the community had ways to punish violators and influence a change in behavior. One person may take a few extra rabbits for their family but with a few exceptions were unable to alter the very ecosystem of the forest.
This no longer the case. The one person violating community rules has mutated into a handful of powerful multinational corporations with wealth exceeding many countries and the power and influence to veto, rewrite or make the rules in their own image. Corporations have been instrumental in creating their own global bill of “rights” protected and enforced by a host of treaties and institutions like the WTO. Together, they ensure the continued raiding and pillaging of the commons to the detriment of the rest of the global village.
Take the North American Free trade Agreement for example. After a local town and state in Mexico sued an American based company for leaving behind a toxic waste site when they closed up shop in their community, the company counter-sued under NAFTA. Under this rule, companies can claim a perpetual right to exploit the commons for private gain as they see fit. When a community attempts to hold a corporation accountable, the company may sue to collect compensation for restrictions on their “right” to continue acting with impunity.
We are however starting to learn our lessons from NAFTA. Enough Latin American countries have opposed the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas on the same grounds that the treaty appears to be dead in the water and the Central American Free Trade Agreement may be the next to follow. Likewise, widespread dissatisfaction by developing countries with the WTO has also ground its work to a halt.
The real tragedy of the commons is that humanity is rapidly losing its birthright to hold water, air, land and the very biological processes of life in trust for future generations. Short of continuing efforts to push for reforming, rebuilding and strengthening global institutions to protect and restore the commons, our survival will continue to be sold to the highest bidder to do with it as they please.
Robert Ovetz, PhD is an adjunct instructor at The Art Institute of California-San Francisco.
Source: An ENN Guest Commentary