The Tragedy of “The Tragedy of the Commons”

6/25/2020 The Tragedy of “The Tragedy of the Commons” – Scientific American Blog Network 1/11
The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist
and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong
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The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons
By Matto Mildenberger on April 23, 2019
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Garrett Hardin in 1972. Credit: Bill Johnson Getty Images
Fifty years ago, University of California professor Garrett Hardin penned an influential
essay in the journal Science. 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.”
It’s hard to overstate Hardin’s impact on modern environmentalism. His views are
taught across ecology, economics, political science and environmental studies. His essay
remains an academic blockbuster, with almost 40,000 citations. It still gets republished
in prominent environmental anthologies.
But here are some inconvenient truths: Hardin was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and
Islamophobe. He is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a known white
nationalist. His writings and political activism helped inspire the anti-immigrant hatred
spilling across America today.
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And he promoted an idea he called “lifeboat ethics”: since global resources are finite,
Hardin believed the rich should throw poor people overboard to keep their boat above
To create a just and vibrant climate future, we need to instead cast Hardin and his
flawed metaphor overboard.
People who revisit Hardin’s original essay are in for a surprise. Its six pages are filled
with fear-mongering. Subheadings proclaim that “freedom to breed is intolerable.” It
opines at length about the benefits if “children of improvident parents starve to death.”
A few paragraphs later Hardin writes: “If we love the truth we must openly deny the
validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” And on and on. Hardin
practically calls for a fascist state to snuff out unwanted gene pools.
Or build a wall to keep immigrants out. Hardin was a virulent nativist whose ideas
inspired some of today’s ugliest anti-immigrant sentiment. He believed that only racially
homogenous societies could survive. He was also involved with the Federation for
American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a hate group that now cheers President Trump’s
racist policies. Today, American neo-Nazis cite Hardin’s theories to justify racial
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These were not mere words on paper. Hardin lobbied Congress against sending food aid
to poor nations, because he believed their populations were threatening Earth’s
“carrying capacity.”
Of course, plenty of flawed people have left behind noble ideas. That Hardin’s tragedy
was advanced as part of a white nationalist project should not automatically condemn its
But the facts are not on Hardin’s side. For one, he got the history of the commons
wrong. As Susan Cox pointed out, early pastures were well regulated by local
institutions. They were not free-for-all grazing sites where people took and took at the
expense of everyone else.
Many global commons have been similarly sustained through community institutions.
This striking finding was the life’s work of Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel
Prize in Economics (technically called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences
in Memory of Alfred Nobel). Using the tools of science—rather than the tools of hatred—
Ostrom showed the diversity of institutions humans have created to manage our shared
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Of course, humans can deplete finite resources. This often happens when we lack
appropriate institutions to manage them. But let’s not credit Hardin for that common
insight. Hardin wasn’t making an informed scientific case. Instead, he was using
concerns about environmental scarcity to justify racial discrimination.
We must reject his pernicious ideas on both scientific and moral grounds.
Environmental sustainability cannot exist without environmental justice. 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. Despite what Hardin
might have said, 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.
Instead, rejecting Hardin’s diagnosis requires us to name the true culprit for the climate
crisis we now face. Thirty years ago, a different future was available. Gradual climate
policies could have slowly steered our economy towards gently declining carbon
pollution levels. The costs to most Americans would have been imperceptible.
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But that future was stolen from us. It was stolen by powerful, carbon-polluting interests
who blocked policy reforms at every turn to preserve their short-term profits. They
locked each of us into an economy where fossil fuel consumption continues to be a
necessity, not a choice.
This is what makes attacks on individual behavior so counterproductive. Yes, it’s great to
drive an electric vehicle (if you can afford it) and purchase solar panels (if powerful
utilities in your state haven’t conspired to make renewable energy more expensive). But
the point is that interest groups have structured the choices available to us today.
Individuals don’t have the agency to steer our economic ship from the passenger deck.
As Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes reminds us, “[abolitionists] wore clothes made of
cotton picked by slaves. But that did not make them hypocrites … it just meant that they
were also part of the slave economy, and they knew it. That is why they acted to change
the system, not just their clothes.”
Or as Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez tweeted: “Living in the world as it is isn’t
an argument against working towards a better future.” The truth is that two-thirds of all
the carbon pollution ever released into the atmosphere can be traced to the activities of
just ninety companies.
These corporations’ efforts to successfully thwart climate action are the real tragedy.
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We are left with very little time. We need political leaders to pilot our economy through
a period of rapid economic transformation, on a grand scale unseen since the Second
World War. And to get there, we are going to have make sure our leaders listen to us, not
—as my colleagues and I show in our research—fossil fuel companies.
Hope requires us to start from an unconditional commitment to one another, as
passengers aboard a common lifeboat being rattled by heavy winds. The climate
movement needs more people on this lifeboat, not fewer. We must make room for every
human if we are going to build the political power necessary to face down the looming
oil tankers and coal barges that send heavy waves in our direction. This is a commitment
at the heart of proposals like the Green New Deal.
Fifty years on, 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 in this time of darkness.
Instead of writing a tragedy, we must offer hope for every single human on Earth. Only
then will the public rise up to silence the powerful carbon polluters trying to steal our
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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