How We've Proved the "Tragedy of the Commons" Wrong
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The following is an excerpt from All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commonsby Jay Walljasper.
It was two years before the first Earth Day in 1970 when Garrett Hardin penned the famous essay “Tragedy of the Commons,” and it fit a certain bleak and despairing mood of the time. Paul Ehrlich had just published The Population Bomb, a Malthusian account of a world overwhelmed by sheer numbers of people. Against the backdrop of that gloom, Hardin’s theory came as another dose of bad news, “proving” that we also had no hope of controlling our appetite for natural resources. Since no one owned the oceans or the atmosphere, we would inevitably fish and pollute them into oblivion. Hardin offered a few suggestions, but his title summed it up: we were witnessing a tragedy whose script could not be revised.
Oddly, a decade later his argument fit just as easily the exuberant, privatizing mood of the Reagan years. No one owns the sky or the sea? Well, then, let’s sell them! The race was on to privatize everything, from fishing rights to kids’ playgrounds, on the theory that this was the only way to manage them well. Society was the problem, the individual was the solution.
The only thing that Hardin’s argument didn’t fit was the facts, at least not all of them. For eons communities had managed to protect all kinds of resources without private ownership. In America and in England, it’s true, a couple of centuries of enclosure and corporatization made this harder to recall. But around the world most of the pasturelands, forests and streams, had long been controlled by communities, drawing on deep traditions of custom and collective wisdom. Even in the U.S. we had classic examples— the acequia irrigation systems of New Mexico, which may be the only sustainable water systems in the American west, or the lobster fishery of Maine, protected from overfishing less by law than by long custom.
And in the years since “The Tragedy of the Commons” appeared, even a cursory glance around the landscape reveals that Hardin’s gloom has been disproven a thousand times. For example, I’m willing to bet that many of the people reading this book turned on their local public radio station this morning. Here’s how public radio works: give away your product for free with no advertising, and then twice a year wheedle people to make a donation to pay for it. Turn that in as your business plan at some bank and they’ll laugh you out the door, but public radio has been the fastest-growing sector of the broadcast industry for years. And now we have low power F.M. and community radio, not to mention the explosion of free content on the Internet.
I’ve spent most of my life as a writer—and one of the sweetest parts of that job is knowing that whatever I produce ends up in a library, an institution dedicated to the idea that we can share things easily. There are innumerable other examples—and they are the parts of our lives that we usually care most about. They don’t show up on balance sheets because they’re not producing profit—but they are producing satisfaction.
These things we share are called commons, which simply means they belong to all of us. Commons can be gifts of nature—such as fresh water, wilderness and the airwaves—or the products of social ingenuity like the Internet, parks, artistic traditions, or the public health service. But today much of our common wealth is under threat from those hungry to ruin it or take it over for selfish, private purposes.