Myth of The Tragedy of the Commons

Keith Parkins
Mar 10, 2017 · 6 min read
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South Common Lincoln

Medieval commons were not, as most people mistakenly assume, places open to the public. The land was owned by a lord, over which the commoners could exercise their commoners rights, pasture their animals, cut wood, cut peat, allow their pigs to root for acorns in the autumn.

The Enclosures, denied access to the commons, denied the commoners their ancient rights.

The commons did not function as described by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons, a myth that has dogged discussions of the commons ever since.

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

… the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Assuming ten commoners, each pastures ten cows on the common. One decides, will obtain an advantage if I release eleven cows onto the common, no one will notice, but if every commoner takes the same decision, one extra cow, no one will notice, that is ten extra cows, the common will be overgrazed.

The ‘rational individual’ so beloved of economists. Only problem is he does not exist. Also sometimes referred to as the ‘self-interested inividual’, who also does not exist.

It was Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nation who created the illusion of the self-interested individual so loved by economists.

But as David Graeber warns this is simplistic, we have to ask who was the transaction between, what was their relationship?

Adam Smith was attempting to show that barter would fail, introduce another myth, the myth of barter.

Prior to the 1980 banking crash we had bankers peddling worthless dodgy financial instruments, a bizarre concept of riskless risk, again based upon self-interested individual.

To return to Garrett Hardin’s essay, there are more fundamental flaws. He makes the assumption that it was disease, tribal wars, kept down the population, and thus prevented overgrazing of the common.

It begs the question, did he ever study any commons to understand how they actually functioned?

As with the Myth of Barter, no one has found any society functioning on barter, but still economists persist in propagating the myth.

What Garrett Hardin has described is the behaviour of bankers who precipitated the 2008 Banking Crisis, driven by their own greed, not acting for either clients or the bank. They knew what they was doing was criminal, but they hoped to be long gone before it all collapsed as Paul Mason documents in PostCapitalism where he gives an example of their e-mail exchanges.

What Garrett Hardin describes is the behaviour of rapacious global corporations, looting the resources of the planet, and where it comes to a head at sites called Blockadia, where the State uses paramilitary force against commoners on the behalf of these rapacious global corporations.

At Standing Rock, the State used tanks and chemical weapons against Native Americans who were trying to stop the North Dakota Access Pipeline from crossing their ancestral lands.

In Romania, a standoff between local farmers and Chevron resembled a war zone.

In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein describes visiting Skouries forest in Greece as akin to visiting a war zone, where a Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold wished to clear cut an old growth forest, open cast mining for gold and copper, vast tailings ponds. It was met with local opposition, and brutal repression by the State. The mining operation, in an unspoilt area popular with tourists, would not only clear fell the forest, pollute the land and water, it would destroy the local tourist and fishing industry. It was one of many unpopular projects pushed through by the corrupt political elite, who were then overthrown by Syriza.

What Garrett Hardin failed to describe was how commons actually function.

A commons is not only the common resource, it is the social structure that shares that resource. As David Bollier explains, the commons self-regulated.

Garrett Hardin fails to comprehend how commons actually function, how they functioned for centuries, as self-regulating, adaptive systems. The survival of the commons depended upon the cooperation of the commoners. If commons had not been self-regulating, adaptive systems, they would not have survived for centuries.

We see this with hunter-gatherer societies. When a successful hunter returns with a kill, he does not claim it as his own, he shares it with his fellows, because he knows on a different day, when he is not successful, the kill will be shared with him.

If we fall for the myth of The Tragedy of the Commons, then Linux, together with a suite of programs called GNU, could not, should not exist. It was developed under what has become known as open source software. A group of people freely gave their time to collaborate on producing a Unix-like operating system for personal computers. It is available for free. Where was the rational being pursuing their own self interest? Instead, through collaboration, they produced a common wealth.

Nor should UpSat and Sat NOGS exist. Developed by the Greek Libre Space Foundation, open source hardware and libre software, an open source satellite and ground station network.

Nor at Nomadic Community Gardens. Two people toiling away at derelict land, bringing back into use. They did not ask for volunteers, the community joined in.

David Bollier in Think Like a Commoner, describes what is taking place as ‘commoning’.

What’s critical in creating any commons … is that a community decides that it wants to engage in the social practice of managing a resource for everyone’s benefit. This is sometimes known as commoning.

Peter Linebaugh, a historian of commons, noted that ‘there is no commons without commoners’.

The only real surprise, is that the myth Garrett Hardin peddled gained any traction, but then the myth peddled by Adam Smith of barter also gained traction.

South Common, a 80 ha open common of rough grassland, patches of woodland, springs, ponds, on a north facing limestone escarpment on the Lincoln Edge, where the River Witham cuts through. High Medieval (850AD –1350AD), Hospital of the Holy Innocents of Malandry and St Catherine’s Priory exercised commoners rights over the common, with the Priory drawing water from springs through a conduit. During this period the people of Lincoln and Canwick also had Rights of Common and grazed their animals alongside those of the Priory and Malandry. South Common is protected by the Lincoln City Council Act 1985 which states that the City Council ‘has a duty to maintain and to preserve the aspect of the Commons as an open space.’ Every resident householder within the city is entitled to graze a horse on any of the three commons within the city boundary. Animals must be registered with the City Council through the City Council’s licensing department.

Light on a Dark Mountain

The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic.

Keith Parkins

Written by

Writer, thinker, deep ecologist, social commentator, activist, enjoys music, literature and good food.

Light on a Dark Mountain

The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.— The Dark Mountain Manifesto

Keith Parkins

Written by

Writer, thinker, deep ecologist, social commentator, activist, enjoys music, literature and good food.

Light on a Dark Mountain

The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.— The Dark Mountain Manifesto

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