Another look at Garrett Hardin (1915-2003)

Published online 15 September 2007.

A column in Counterpunch this week (Iain Boal in conversation with David Martinez) inspired me to reconsider the intellectual legacy of Garrett Hardin.  In this essay, I will consider Hardin’s short piece “The Tragedy of the Commons” as an defining phenomenon of modern ecology.  Even though the “tragedy of the commons” is real, I argue, it has more to do with the poverty of capitalist commons management than with the incapability of society to manage the commons.  Good commons management will be necessary in the future, which will at some point mean a global human society more capable of protecting the commons than what we have now.

crossposted at Docudharma

Part 1: What is the “tragedy of the commons”?

Garrett Hardin died four years ago yesterday.  Hardin was a microbiologist, and an ecologist, and a lifelong Republican, and his intellectual contribution (although tainted by a generally Republican attitude toward life) to the field of ecology was enormous.  Hardin was also an excellent essayist, a quality I very much respect.

Garrett Hardin was most famous for an essay published in 1968 titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.”  The basic idea of it is this: in a system where there is a “commons,” an entity that is not divided into individually-owned private properties; individuals will eventually deplete the “commons” of its meaningful wealth.  Now, we can actually see the “tragedy of the commons” effect in the world’s oceans.  Usually it runs by the name of “overfishing” – the fisheries have brought the oceans to a state of ecological crisis through their need to get a short-term profit off of the world’s fish.  The fish, meanwhile, are “up for grabs” for anyone who can catch them because they live in a global “commons,” the oceans.

Now, the “tragedy of the commons” is meant to illustrate a general principle.  A commons is an area which, by custom or by necessity, is not owned privately.  Hardin reasons that if anyone can take from the commons, then the commons will at some point be depleted.  The commons, for Hardin, is a system, in which losses are accepted by the society as a whole (the society as a whole loses when the commons is depleted), whereas profits are privatized (when individuals take from the commons).

Now, the example of the “tragedy of the commons” that Hardin uses is one of a field which ranchers are allowed to use.  This is how he describes “the tragedy of the commons” in ranching:

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. (3-4)

Once human population starts to escalate, the commons is in trouble, because people “eat up” the commons.

Now, I know of no direct proof that human overpopulation actually causes (in any direct way) the global ecological crisis.  Certainly the recent escalation of global human population can be correlated with the urbanization of the planet, which can itself be correlated with a broad loss of habitat for many of the world’s animal and plant species.

But what is the causal link behind all of this?  Is “overpopulation” the cause of environmental degradation?  Or does it matter what the human race does, regardless of its numbers?

These are the questions begged by the “overpopulation” issue.  The other issue that is introduced in the “Tragedy of the Commons” essay (link) is the issue of the privatization of profit amidst the public acceptance of loss.  Certainly this is how neoliberal economics works – the rich get richer and the rest of us “stay afloat” with varying degrees of success.

Here is Hardin’s characterization of why “the commons” is depleted.

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.

  1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal.  Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
  1. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal.  Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decisionmaking herdsman is only a fraction of -1. (4)

So, for Hardin, there’s this game that all herdsmen are seemingly required to play: “deplete the commons before its benefits are used up.”  Here’s how he sees the game ending:

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to the herd.  And another… but this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman about 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. (4)

But is this how “rational herdsmen” really behave?  Do they all seek to add animals to their herds?  What about the lazy ones, the ones that wish to have small herds so they can spend more time doing something other than herding animals?  Is it less rational to be lazy, or to have other interests than “maximizing gain”?  Hardin’s response is that it doesn’t matter, that having a conscience about the commons doesn’t amount to anything because there will (with the increase in human population) still be attempts to use up the commons.

In “Tragedy of the Commons,” Hardin proposes a solution to the tragedy of the commons: mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.  He suggests that private property is a way of doing this.  The laws prohibiting theft, for Hardin, also prohibit people from making a “commons” of the world, and thus prohibit the “tragedy of the commons.”

However, in some circumstance the commons has to be communally (or publicly) managed.  In fact, some time after the publication of “Tragedy of the Commons” (in 1994), Hardin publishes an essay titled “Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons,” to discuss how this should be so.

Part 2: Why commons management is necessary

In that essay, Hardin tries to demolish the notion promoted in Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” that wealth in human society should be distributed “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!”  If society were to follow such a rule, Hardin assumes:

You must contribute to the common pot according to your ability, while I demand the right to take out of the pot according to my needs, as I reckon them.  “Need creates right,” say I.  But with every “I” saying this, in a world of shortages there can be no spontaneously generated stability.  (If there were no shortages there would be no problem of course: but that does not describe our world.)(176)

Marx’s suggestion, of course, presumed a world where shortages had ended for good.  At any rate, the slogan “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” do not have to assume that the needy have to be placed in charge of defining what their “needs” are.  If the satisfaction of needs comes from the use of the commons, then the definition of “needs” will have to come from the commons too.

Hardin nevertheless thinks that “the commons” can be managed communally.  He argues that the communes that manage the commons have to be of a certain maximum size, maybe “100 or 150 people,” otherwise it won’t work.

There is plenty of discussion, especially from anthropologists, against the idea that the solution to the “tragedy of the commons” is to privatize the commons.  The privatization of the commons in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, has been widely acclaimed to have disastrous effects: see Custodians of the Commons (ed. Charles R. Lane) or Pauline E. Peters’ Dividing the Commons: Politics, Policy, and Culture in Botswana for more detailed ethnographic accounts.

A recent article in Counterpunch (“Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty, and Apocalypse“) attacks Garrett Hardin (and a bunch of other neoMalthusians) for their connection to the neoliberal economic project:

Take for example Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 essay, “The tragedy of the commons”, published in the journal Science. This was an enormously influential text by a Texan zoologist, based on no sociological research whatsoever, and in profound ignorance of the actual history of commoning. Hardin asserted that all common resources (such as pasture, a favorite example) will inevitably end in ruin because of over-exploitation by selfish individuals. Hardin’s fable was taken up by the gathering forces of neo-liberal reaction in the 1970s, and his essay became the “scientific” foundation of World Bank and IMF policies, viz. enclosure of commons and privatization of public property. The plausibility of Hardin’s Malthusian claims doesn’t survive a moment’s scrutiny. Ask yourself – was the disaster of the Dust Bowl a tragedy of the commons or of capitalist agriculture under private ownership? (1)

The right-wing libertarian notion that the commons can be privatized into “safety” is wishful thinking.  First off, certain “commonses” (air, water) cannot just be parceled out to individuals as “private property.”  The concept of private property, arguably, is based on two models: real estate, which is private property by virtue of its solid character, and chattel property, which consists of solid objects which can be owned.  The concept of private property is more difficult to apply to liquid and gaseous entities.  The Earth’s atmosphere, for instance, or the oceans, could not be meaningfully parceled out to individuals.  It wouldn’t mean anything, for instance, for me to claim ownership of a chunk of the atmosphere, or a volume of water anywhere in the Pacific Ocean.  Moreover, market systems of “user rights” do NOT constitute privatization of the atmosphere or the oceans, for they presume a prior collective state management of these entities as a precondition of the system.

So the commons, and the public management of the commons, are unavoidable.  (This is important to remember when debating Republicans, who revere private property as a sacred cow and as a panacea for social problems.)  Is the “tragedy of the commons” inevitable in all “commonses”?  Can people avoid the ruination of their planetary commons?  It’s hard to say.  It’s also a meaningful thing to speculate about.

Part 3: Why limits to “carrying capacity” are real

Hardin’s concept of the “tragedy of the commons” is intimately related to the concept of “carrying capacity.”  With “carrying capacity,” Hardin assumes that the landscape can only tolerate the presence of so many people, and at some point there will be too many people for the “carrying capacity” of the land.  Indeed, there has to be a thing called “carrying capacity” – if there weren’t such a thing, societies would not suffer ecological collapse.  (Thus Hardin’s later writings, such as The Ostrich Factor, are about overpopulation.  The Ostrich Factor (1998) pressures the academic community to admit that there is such a thing as overpopulation, accusing the deniers of being “ostriches” with their heads in the sand.)

If “carrying capacity” exists, for the world or for any large portion of it, we had better know what it is, if we wish to avoid exceeding the carrying capacity, and dying off.  However, any calculation of “carrying capacity” in a particular system of human metabolism of nature would have to take into account the ways in which people actually prop up “carrying capacity” itself.  People can materially support their local ecologies.  People can manage environments to be more ecologically diverse than they otherwise would be.  Human need does not have to deplete the land if humans contribute to its productivity, and if what comes out of human beings (from composted “bad food” to urine and feces) is effectively recycled.

Cornucopians (such as the late Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource II), take the benefit of human existence too far.  They think that human potential is infinite, that we will always be able to think of new ways of supporting “carrying capacity,” and that we will never run out of “natural resources.”  They are wrong to think that the limits to “carrying capacity” (and the tragedy of the commons) will always be outwitted by human ingenuity.  What about human ingenuity that is pointed the wrong way, toward the destruction of Earth’s nurturance, toward more dissipated states of entropy?  How powerful is the human capacity for fouling the nest?  It’s easy to imagine that our society is culturally able to screw up Earth’s “carrying capacity” so badly (through nuclear war as a historically-first example) that it won’t be outwitted through the ingenuity of the cleverest individual living within its boundaries.  One quite likely way of screwing up Earth’s carrying capacity was noticed by Hardin in his 1985 book Filters Against Folly: we could create an abrupt climate change effect so bad that it could precipitate massive crop failure, thus widespread famine.  So cornucopianism will not help us with the tragedy of the commons.


Unfortunately, the capitalist system (including the “mixed economy,” which at any rate serves largely to meet the demands of capitalists) has mostly catered to the demands for the short-term profit of an owning class, gained by whatever means necessary.  This is mostly what it means to “maintain a good business climate.”  The capitalist system, then, cares little about propping up “carrying capacity.”  At some point, then, we will need a new system of political economy, one that cares (both in government and in business) more about “carrying capacity” than capitalism does.  It may take a major “tragedy of the commons” to make this happen, however.


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