Monday, March 21, 2011

My final thought about "the commons" . . .

(. . . at least in terms of applicability of the metaphor to my book project.)

As part of the process of trying to clarify the topic for my own benefit, I've written three posts analyzing Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" metaphor (here, here, and here). I've finally read & digested John A. Baden and Douglas S. Noonan, eds., Managing the Commons (2nd ed., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) and now know how I'm going to address this metaphor in my book.

Some writers apply the metaphor of “the commons” to environmental resources broadly. I find myself uncomfortable with this metaphor generally, and I am not alone among historians in this. Joseph Taylor and Richard White both directly address the shortcomings of the commons metaphor.

Taylor finds that the commons metaphor “ignores a central reality of the fishery’s spatial and racial politics.” The point that Taylor makes that is as applicable in the case of Willamette River pollution as it is in the case of Pacific Northwest salmon management is that “the relative economic and political capital that each group possessed was crucial when interests collided in environmental management.”[1]

White finds that economist Garrett Hardin’s “model of the commons is an invention. No such simple commons has ever operated.” Instead, “users of common resources set up rules and limits; they created customs.”[2] The story of Willamette River pollution abatement supports White’s interpretation of Hardin’s idea: A complex narrative of society’s changing demands upon the river and the impacts of these demands upon present and potential uses of the river, which, in turn, helped spur changes in city, state, and federal rules, limits, and customs.

Other scholars have also found Hardin’s metaphor overly simplistic. David Feeny, et al., observe that "Surprisingly little careful empirical work on common property followed Hardin's seminal publication." These authors note that Hardin's idea lacks empirical support in present-day contexts; as White and Taylor observe, the idea also lacks historical context. As a result, Feeny et al. conclude that "as with many seminal but simple models, Hardin's analysis has been shown by subsequent studies to be overly simplified and deterministic."[3]

The book Managing the Commons contains seventeen chapters from various authors discussing this idea, and there is much to commend. However, one particularly glaring shortcoming in this book is that many authors approach the topic from the realm of economic theory. A problem with economic theory, in my view, is that some people take it too seriously -- they reify a theory, either unwittingly or otherwise, and then come to believe that their theory is actually real.[4]

The clearest example of how theory can serve as an unfortunate roadblock to understanding more completely the complexities of social & environmental systems and interrelated changes over time among these systems is in economist Robert L. Bish's chapter.[5]

Bish writes that "a good example of [the effects of] privatization of a publicly owned natural resource was the enclosure movement in Medieval England." He then goes on for two paragraphs to characterize the enclosure movement. He does not cite a single source to support his data or his interpretation.

I find it hard to believe that not a single expert in the history of the enclosure movement in Medieval England has not published a single source on this topic. Bish was either being lazy or being purposeful in not citing any of these sources to help support his contentions. If the former, well, we've all made mistakes. If the latter -- and I suspect it is the latter, because these paragraphs are central to his chapter -- then he's calling upon an historical example to support his argument without bothering to apply even halfheartedly the historical method. This suggests to me that he's more interested in propping-up his theory than he is in actually trying to unwind complex events and shed light on the topic at hand.

My primary disappointment with Bish's chapter, and with the idea of "the commons" in general, is that at first glance it appears to be a substantive model that might help illuminate things, but when one looks beyond the tidy façade one finds little of historical substance. Perhaps "the tragedy of the commons" has a place in economics theory, but, until I see explicit evidence that it has solid historical grounding and relates directly to nineteenth and twentieth century environmental history in North America, I'm afraid it has no use in my book.

[1] Joseph E. Taylor III, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 10-11.

[2] Richard White, Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York, Hill and Wang, 1995), 39-43.

[3] David Feeny, Fikret Berkes, Bonnie J. McCay, and James M. Acheson, “The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later,” in John A. Baden and Douglas S. Noonan, eds., Managing the Commons (2nd ed.) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 76-94.

[4] I'm using the word theory here not in the sense of a scientific theory. The theory I'm discussing here is "contemplation or speculation" that pertains to "a body of principles, theorems, or the like, belonging to one subject." Scientific theory -- "a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena" -- is different. The main difference specifically comparing the fields of economics and the physical sciences is that the former is a set of ideological and moral beliefs informing a definitive statement that purports to predict complex social phenomena; the latter is a working conclusion based on verifiable experimentation and open to refinement that helps explain complexities of the physical world.

[5] Robert L. Bish, "Environmental Resources Management: Public or Private?" in John A. Baden and Douglas S. Noonan, eds., Managing the Commons (2nd ed.) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 65-74.



  1. I had a similar experience researching ideas about the commons for a paper on landscape history and common lands reform in England during the twentieth century. There was none of the blindly acquisitive human nature identified by Hardin in those commons, rather they were largely neglected lands that communities sought legal empowerment to take responsibility for.
    That being said, Hardin's concept works quite well as developed by McEvoy in The Fisherman's Problem. Though A commercial fishery seems to be a different kettle of fish from what you're frying...

  2. Thanks for the comment, h2onrd.

    Yeah, for me the idea of the commons continues to be a slippery thing. What I find for myself when I try to apply it, and when I read about it in others' works, is that at first blush it often seems like a handy theoretical tool, but as soon as I try to go into depth with it, I find that there isn't much more there than theory.

    For example, as I wrote in a previous post, most often when I read an author who refers to "the tragedy of the commons," the author does so in an off-hand way, as if it's self-evident, and then, quite often, cites only Hardin's brief paper on the topic. This kind of treatment causes my hackles to rise a bit -- I figure that if it's such a central concept, and so useful as an explanation, why do so many authors use it in only the most cursory way, and why cite such a brief, theoretically-based, treatment of the concept written so long ago?

    I haven't yet read McEvoy, but I should, and am looking forward to it.

  3. h2onrd, I read the intro to McEvoy's book, and his seminal 1987 article in Environmental Review and have written a post in response.