Monday, April 25, 2011

On "The Tragedy of the Commons" (again)

A few weeks ago, I made the claim that I was done thinking about Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" metaphor.

Apparently I was wrong.

I attended the 2011 ASEH conference in Phoenix a few days ago and had two important and distinct opportunities to learn more about the weaknesses of Hardin's commons metaphor. In spite of my claim that I was done thinking about this, I came away from the conference with new information that should serve as my final, final statement on the topic.

The first experience occurred during an interdisciplinary round table discussion about sustainability (Panel 4-B on Thursday, for those of you keeping score), titled "Sustainability and its Discontents." I learned two things in this session. The first was a great rule-of-thumb that political science professor Thomas Princen articulated: When he hears people discuss sustainability, he asks, "sustaining what, for how long, and for whom?"

In this same panel I also learned another important thing, from Richard Hoffman, professor of Medieval history. Hoffman writes on Medieval European environmental issues, including the actual commons, and dismissed Hardin's metaphor out of hand.

My second opportunity to learn more about how other scholars view Hardin's commons metaphor was in a discussion of Arthur McEvoy's book, The Fisherman's Problem (1986) (Panel 7-H on Saturday). McEvoy addresses the commons metaphor explicitly in this book, and even more directly in his 1987 Environmental Review article, "Toward an Interactive Theory of Nature and Culture: Ecology, Production, and Cognition in the California Fishing Industry."

In his ER article, McEvoy provides a clear and concise critique of Hardin's commons metaphor that, for me, offers a clear, concise, and definitive rebuttal.[1] McEvoy writes:
    As Hardin saw it, when competing users shared resources in common, the inevitable fate was annihilation. . . . So powerful a model was the commons tragedy that through the 1960s and 1970s it supplied the framework in which most economists, lawyers, scientists, and environmentalists understood natural resource issues.
McEvoy provides a brief bit of context for theoretical models generally, within which to understand Hardin's model:
    A key source of a model's authority -- its power to organize our view of the world -- is its (usually implicit) claim to universality and ahistoricity. In that sense, neither eighteenth-century social contract theory, nor social Darwinism, nor Euclidean geometry purported to describe the world only as it existed under particular conditions. Rather, each of those theories ostensibly explained the way things are in the world, independent of time, place, and circumstance.
That is, people tend to offer theoretical models as totalizing views of the world. The models claim to explain everything.

McEvoy continues:
    Hardin's article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," was a synthesis and popularization of a body of scholarship that originated in the early 1950s as a critique of the Progressive distinction between economic behavior and legal organization. The new reformers argued that fishery depletion and other such problems had their origins in the common-property legal regimes in which such industries operated. Placing the resources under the management of a single owner, whether private or public, would allow that owner to internalize the social cost of over-harvesting . . .
    In a privatized fishery, therefore, market incentives would automatically lead harvesters to behave in an ecologically prudent fashion, in a way that competitors for shared resources -- each scrambling over the other to take as much as they could before all the wealth disappeared -- could not. That is the lesson implicit in the tragic myth of the commons; it underlies much of the modern literature on environmental problems. Developments in environmental law since 1970, however, suggest that a new understanding is taking shape.
McEvoy calls Hardin's metaphor "myopic," and outlines three reasons why this is the case:
    To begin with, the profit of the harvesters is the only measure of value . . . As in the Progressive Era sustained-yield model, the only meaningful variable is economic effort and the only meaningful output is cash or its equivalent. Yet at the core of most environmental problems is the fact that the price measure does not account for many important values that are too long term, too diffuse, or too uncertain to register in the calculations of market bargainers. Some values, indeed, are sacral in nature and thus not open to market bidding at any price.
    A second shortcoming of the commons tragedy thesis is its implicit view of the way that government makes decisions. Hardin's solution to the commons problems . . . "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon" . . . implied an independent observer of nature and a neutral rule maker somehow external to and immune from the interests being disciplined. The commons myth thus shares with Progressive conservation an assumed dichotomy between market struggle and lawmaking.
    A third shortcoming of the tragic myth of the commons is its strangely unidimensional picture of human nature. The farmers on Hardin's pasture do not seem to talk to one another. As individuals, they are alienated, rational, utility-maximizing automatons and little else. The sum total of their social life is the grim, Hobbesian struggle of each against all and all together against the pasture in which they are trapped.
    The commons myth, therefore, misrepresents the way common lands were used in the archetypical case (i.e. England before the privatization of landed property). English farmers met twice a year at manor court to plan production for the coming months. On those occasions they certainly would have exchanged information about the state of their lands and sanctioned those who took more than their fair share from the common pool.
McEvoy concludes with a clear articulation of an alternate -- and dynamic -- model of understanding environmental issues:
    Any explanation of environmental change should account for the mutually constitutive natureof ecology, production, and cognition, the latter at the level of individuals, which we call ideology, or at the societal level, which in the modern world we call law. First, people adapt to the world around them, one that consists of a non-human environment -- evolving in part on its own and in response to what people do to it -- and of other people as well. Second, what distinguishes humanity as a species is its capacity to produce, to alter its environment more or less deliberately to ensure its survival and propagation. Finally, people organize their behavior according to particular world views, whether expressed or implicit. As people act on the basis of their understanding of how the world works, what they do inevitably changes their social and natural environment, to which they then must adapt anew.
    All three elements -- ecology, production, and cognition -- evolve in tandem, each according to its own particular logic and in response to changes in the other two. To externalize any of the three elements, to place it in the set of given "environmental" conditions within which one explains an ecological change, is to miss the crucial fact that human life and thought are embedded in each other and together in the non-human world. Insofar as the tragic myth of the commons does this, it may serve less as a heuristic device for understanding environmental problems than as a recipe for exacerbating them.[2]
[1] This is not to say that it would not be fruitful to study the impact of Hardin's commons metaphor in framing and influencing discussion of environmental politics and management since the late 1960s, but this is a completely different conversation.

[2] Quoted text from Arthur F. McEvoy, "Toward an Interactive Theory of Nature and Culture: Ecology, Production, and Cognition in the California Fishing Industry," Environmental Review 11:4 (Winter 1987), 290-291, 297-301.



  1. A very interesting piece, I hadn't really thought about Hardin since my undergrad environmental studies. Even then I remember thinking to myself well surely some common property systems sustain and others have led to depletion and collapse!

    I'll definitely be using Princen's rule of thumb for sustainability whenever the term comes up in future.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Alex. Yeah, Hardin's commons metaphor has been stewing in my mind for a couple of years now, ever since one of the members of my thesis committee suggested I incorporate it into my work.

    As I wrote in previous posts (linked above), I read quite a number of sources on this idea in an attempt to determine if the metaphor applied in my case. Not long into this research I concluded that the metaphor didn't fit, but I couldn't quite articulate why until I read the sources I discussed in this post a few weeks ago. Then, I attended those two sessions at the ASEH 2011 and am now confident that I've concluded my research into this metaphor, at least in terms of its applicability to my current book project.