The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE ENVIRONMENTALISM OF GARRETT HARDIN
BY PROFESSOR MATTO MILDENBERGER, UC SANTA BARBARA
Hardin saw all humans as selfish herders: we worry that our neighbors’ cattle will graze the best grass. So, we send more of our cows out to consume that grass first. We take it first, before someone else steals our share. This creates a vicious cycle of environmental degradation that Hardin described as the “tragedy of the commons.”, i.e., competition among humans for nature’s best products is destructive. In that context it is relevant that Hardin subscriibed to EUGENICS as well as to human overpopulation. He also promoted what he called LIFEBOAT ETHICS which holds that since global resources are finite, the rich should throw the poor overboard to keep their boat above water. It is not a good idea for the rich to help the poor. Hardin’s works are filled with fear-mongering proclaiming that freedom to breed is intolerable. He wrote that it is better for children of improvident parents to starve to death. He also writes that if we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He favors a fascism because of its ability to remove the unwanted gene pools consistent with eugenicism. On the matter of race he wrote that that only racially homogenous societies survive and prosper. Neo-Nazis cite Hardin to justify their position. Hardin lobbied Congress against sending food aid to poor nations, because he believed their populations were threatening Earth’s carrying capacity and so only the best should be allowed to survive. With regard to the commons, early pastures were well regulated by local institutions an even in the wild, humans understood the mutual gains from cooperation. There was no destructive competition for grazing in the commons. Many global commons sustain through community institutions and cooperation. Humans have created a diversity of institutions to manage and share our shared environment. Of course, humans can deplete finite resources. This often happens when we lack appropriate institutions to manage them. We must reject his pernicious ideas on both scientific and moral grounds. Are we really prepared to follow Hardin and say there are only so many lead pipes we can replace? Only so many bodies that should be protected from cancer-causing pollutants? Only so many children whose futures matter? This is particularly important when we deal with climate change. The climate crisis is not a tragedy of the commons. The culprit is not our individual impulses to consume fossil fuels to the ruin of all. And the solution is not to let small islands in Chesapeake Bay or whole countries in the Pacific sink into the past, without a seat on our planetary lifeboat.
Let’s stop the mindless invocation of Hardin. Let’s stop saying that we are all to blame because we all overuse shared resources. Let’s stop championing policies that privilege environmental protection for some human beings at the expense of others. And let’s replace Hardin’s flawed metaphor with an inclusive vision for humanity—one based on democratic governance and cooperation