Attending to the Whole: Addressing the Tragedy of the Commons

By Madronna Holden

Garret Hardin’s much cited essay, “Tragedy of the Commons”, asserts that as humans maximize their individual self-interest, they inevitably destroy the natural commons that sustains them.  Hardin used the theoretical example of a pasture, assuming individual grazers would more strongly weight the benefits to themselves in grazing more sheep as against the benefits to the commons in holding back — thus overgrazing their land to destruction.

If Hardin had used real history instead of his postulated example,  he might have revised his assumption about the inevitable destruction of human resources shared in common. In traditionally shared commons, many cultures characteristically  monitor and self-regulate their activity to protect their subsistence base, as in the case of Mongolian horse pasture  and tribal fisheries in the indigenous Pacific Northwest. The latter are two examples pointed out by three distinguished professors in the fields of agribusiness, ecology and property law in their essay, “Tragedy of Ecosystem Services”.

Humans have not always been so stupid as to destroy the natural commons that sustains them —given that they both recognize it as their means of survival and have the power to regulate it as a community.  On the other hand, humans who don’t have knowledge of the results of their actions on the commons may act so as to undermine its survival– and their own. Jared Diamond illustrates such cases of ecological failure in his book, Collapse.

But given good information and the power to implement community choices accordingly, humans have designed subsistence arrangements sustainable for hundreds or thousands of years—as did the terrace-farmers in New Guinea with which Diamond had firsthand experience.

Today, the “tragedy of the commons” results from the intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition – in which one person’s gain becomes another’s loss.  What began the massive post-industrial erosion of the commons in Europe were the seventeenth century enclosure and land privatization laws, creating scarcity for small grazers and setting them in competition with one another.  At the same time that this policy filled the coffers of a few, it took away the power of the community to recognize their common interests and care for their lands together.

Enclosure laws, purported to “protect” local farmers, actually drove them off their land, as it did the James family, whose members came to the US after they lost their own land as a result.  It was a memory so potent as to be passed through several generations — and communicated to me when I interviewed James family members on Grand Mound Prairie, Washington, over two hundred years later.

The tragedy of the commons derives not from human nature –or a human presence on the land which is inevitably destructive– but from systems that work against doing the right thing, ecologically speaking–by obscuring knowledge of the importance of natural systems to our survival, for instance.

Or by creating an economic system that robs individuals of ecologically sound alternatives.  In response to the essay  on “partnering with the natural world”  on this site, Darcy Myers gives the example of a woman in Haiti who recognizes the destructive ecological consequences of her actions, but cannot survive by doing otherwise.

I once asked a group of dislocated workers (former loggers) in a class I taught how many would support clear cutting if they were given an economic alternative.  If they saw a different means with which to support their families, not a one would have chosen to clear-cut the land.

According to “The Tragedy of Ecosystem Services” degradation of natural processes priced at 33 trillion annually (in 1994 dollars) results from a failure to recognize and value them. Simply put, in a system which prioritizes making money, protecting the commons doesn’t.  Services created by natural processes but unvalued in the present market system include clean water, clean air, stable weather patterns, carbon sequestration in forests, and soil fertility.

In this article, C. L. Lant, J. B. Ruhl, and S.E. Kraft outline three ways humans have historically treated “ecosystem services”: private property law, government regulation, and common law.

They  concur with the ample documentation that indicates current US private property law is inevitably regressive in terms of care for the commons.

Government regulation is an important stop-gap to save resources that might otherwise be lost forever. But in its overriding of local decision-making, such regulation may lead not only to resistance on the part of local communities,  but to oppositions between interest groups that obscure recognition of the commons itself.

The third way of caring for “ecosystem services” is by taking up the precedent of common law, which has fallen by wayside in the emphasis on private property in the US legal system since the nineteenth century.  The Mongolian pasturage and northwest fishing situations are models of such common law—as are older European grazing traditions.

The authors of this article propose that the best way for such common law to be developed and enforced is by local communities within particular ecosystems.  There are interesting parallels between such common law and the legal “rights of nature”, since both set up legal rights for the protection of natural commons.

Though these authors have no illusions about the shift in cultural values and economic habits such common law might require, they insist we cannot continue to ignore the value of natural systems that sustain our lives —letting them be grabbed and used up by whomever can do so.

Many indigenous cultural traditions see the natural commons as priceless—and their protection as taking precedence over individual human rights to amass wealth, for instance.  These traditions  express holistic worldviews that respect the intrinsic value of all earthly life–extending their sense of family to all species in the circle of time that includes, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe framed it, ” a community of the living, the dead and the unborn.”

A vision of the whole that extends our awareness and responsibility arms us to reverse the tragedy of the commons.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.