Deforestation and the general despoliation of the planet continue to accelerate. It is often contended that overpopulation, playing itself out via a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, is the primary cause. It is not. The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is a quite pernicious myth. A resource ‘free-for-all’ can and does lead to environmental disasters. But throughout history, communal use and management of land and forests has often been extremely sustainable.

As many trees have been felled in the last 50 years as in the whole of history before!

In 2006, in his magisterial book Deforesting the Earth, the Oxford historical geographer Michael Williams wrote: ‘the area cleared since 1950 has only just about come near the amount cleared before that.’ He was illustrating the fact that deforestation has been going on for centuries, indeed for millennia. Williams’ work has performed a great service by minutely and exhaustively showing us how and when deforestation occurred in different parts of the world. But what is perhaps more arresting is that it also quite literally means that over the last half-century humans have cut down as many trees as they did in the whole of history before!

Major episodes of deforestation have happened at different times in different regions. Quite early on in the (at one time) fertile crescent, during the first millennium in China, in the Middle Ages and the early modern period in Europe, in the 18th and 19th centuries in North America, and in the 20th century in much of the rest of the world. There is no doubt that deforestation and ‘civilization’ have always gone hand in hand. The more advanced the civilization the faster the trees fall.

One persisting and pernicious myth about environmental degradation in general, and deforestation in particular, is that the root cause is almost always overpopulation. According to Berkeley biologist Garrett Hardin this is manifested or played out in what he called The Tragedy of the Commons. In his original 1968 paper, Hardin was quite explicit:

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.

He goes on to assume that ‘each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain’ and makes a rational calculation. If he adds another animal to the commons he will receive all the benefit and, even though his adding more and more animals might contribute to overgrazing, these negative consequences do not just fall on him, they are shared by all. As Hardin concludes, the logic of this is that:

The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing 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.

Garret Hardin – Eugenicist and author of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’

Hardin’s main purpose was not to examine the history of the English commons, nor the long process of their Enclosure (i.e. privatization). He didn’t do this at all. Instead, following in the footsteps of Thomas Malthus, his programme was to argue that the only answer to the Tragedy was, wherever practical, to move all common lands or rights to use the land, into private ownership – thereby establishing clear ‘property rights’.  But Hardin had another agenda as well. He was a eugenicist and had often argued for the forced sterilization of ‘genetically defective’ people. In The Tragedy of the Commons he was quite explicit that we needed to ‘relinquish the freedom to breed’:

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity”–and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

To be sure, it wasn’t rich property owners who would have to stop breeding. He made it quite clear that the onus was on the poor, whether at home in the United States or in the Third World. What is more, the poor would need to be ‘coerced’ to do so. In 1997, the Wall Street Journal reported:

Mr. Hardin expressed alarm about ‘the next generation of breeders’ now reproducing uncontrollably in Third World countries. The problem, according to Mr. Hardin, is not simply that there are too many people in the world, but there are too many of the wrong kind of people… It would be better to encourage the breeding of more intelligent people rather than the less intelligent.

I will try to highlight four things: That the so-called Tragedy of the Commons is a myth; that more often than not ecological tragedies have been driven much more frequently by the ruthless pursuit of short-term capitalist profit-maximization than they have by the exercise of communal rights; that the legacy and acceptance of Hardin’s Tragedy has had pernicious consequences; and, finally, that the ‘population question’ isn’t as simple as neo-Malthusians might suggest. In a separate piece I will also present a small ‘micro-history’ of events in the Ariège region of the French Pyrenees in the early 19th century. This, I believe, can illustrate some of the some of the general issues surrounding The Tragedy of the Commons.

The ‘Myth’ of the Tragedy of the Commons:

Harden's 1968 article appeared in Science magazine

Harden’s 1968 article in Science magazine…notice the question mark!

As his primary historical example Hardin used the supposed overgrazing of the ‘commons’ in England in the period leading up to the 19th century. He based his contentions on the work of the English mathematician and political economist William Foster Lloyd. But, as many scholars have since shown, the English commons never really afforded unrestricted or unfettered access to common land or resources. It was never a ‘free-for-all.’ The English commons consisted in a number of ancient rights that individuals and communities had either enjoyed for centuries or had managed to extract – often against fierce resistance – from their feudal Lords. The types of rights, for example to fish, to forage for wild produce, to gaze sheep and cows or to collect wood or cut down trees, and the extent of these rights, was never vague. Sometimes rights were written down but often they were just well-known customary practices – finding their origin in times ‘immemorial’ – but everyone knew who had rights and to what.

It was the American political economist Susan Cox who first described The Tragedy of the Commons as a ‘Myth’. She concluded her excellent study of the English commons’ issue, No Tragedy on the Commons, with the following observation:

Perhaps what existed in fact was not a ‘tragedy of the commons’ but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years – and perhaps thousands … – land was managed successfully by communities.

Contrary to what Hardin and others implied, it is quite clear that the English Enclosure Movement was not some sort of beneficial event that saved the commons from being completely despoiled and denuded. In reality, it was a forced privatization, taking place over several centuries and often in the face of fierce opposition. It was quite simply an exercise through which powerful elites tried, and succeeded, in grabbing more power for themselves.

Ultimately whether or not the history of the English commons and the Enclosure Movement as it was presented by Garret Hardin was true or false might seem only to be of interest to historians of the period. But this is not the case. He implied that such tragedies of the commons were absolutely inevitable and that they had happened throughout history. In 2009, the American political economist Elinor Ostrom jointly won the Nobel Prize for Economics for her decades’ long work, which had showed that this had not been so –at least not most of the time. She and her collaborators presented dozens, if not hundreds, of historical and contemporary examples highlighting where communities have been able to manage communal resources sustainably, without any environmental tragedy. Ostrom wrote that Hardin’s ‘conclusion of an inevitable tragedy was too sweeping’.

Ostrom acknowledged that what she refers to as ‘open-access common-pool resources’ have sometimes been ‘overharvested’. But only in the cases where the commons concerned were a ‘free-for-all’ – which has only been the case in a certain number of situations. Even the Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz, himself a Nobel Prize  winner, commented that Conservatives ‘have used the Tragedy of the Commons to argue for property rights, and that efficiency was achieved as people were thrown off the commons’. He adds that what Ostrom has demonstrated is the ‘existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of the commons without having to resort to property rights’. So while a ‘free-for-all’ can lead to environmental tragedies, communal ownership, management and use mostly has not. The Tragedy of the Commons is a Myth.

Who really causes the Tragedies?

Nobody, I daresay, would deny that the world has witnessed and is still witnessing innumerable examples of environmental tragedies and even catastrophes. ‘If you’re looking for a tragedy’, writes Raj Patel, ‘you can find it everywhere, from the scrambling coltan-mining communities in the Congo to the increasingly desperate actions of farmers applying inorganic fertilizer to the soil to replace the fertility that their mono­culture has destroyed.’

Modern capitalist logging is what causes most deforestation

I use the word tragedy here in is usual everyday sense, rather than with the classical Greek meaning implied by Hardin – i.e. some sort of logical and inevitable playing out of forces beyond the understanding of the protagonists. It is certainly true that sometimes these tragedies have had their roots in instances of overpopulation and even in instances of an unfettered free-for-all to derive profit from ‘open-access’ resources –whether they be forests, rivers or seas. Yet in the bulk of cases it has not been groups of rural communities with common rights in the land or forests that have caused these tragedies. What is striking is that the bulk of contemporary commentary on ecological degradation is that it completely removes itself from the question of ‘who’ exactly caused it. Even from the question of what, in concrete terms, were the underlying causes. It does this by employing such abstract and vague terms as ‘humans’. Sometimes it even reifies this term to ‘Humankind’. We are told ‘human’ population growth is causing environmental damage and resource depletion; ‘humans’ are cutting down the rain forests; and ‘humans’ are causing global warming.

In one way this is the logical result of the dominant neo-classical economic model. For the sake of mathematical simplicity, this model abstracts from all aspects of geography (space), all aspects of history (time) and even from all aspects of group interaction and dynamics. It does this by constructing a fictive super-rational single ‘representative agent’ who makes decisions based solely on prices given by an equally fictive market. In such a world there really is no place for individuals, groups, classes or even enterprises. The singular fictive representative agent subtly morphs into the plural ‘humans’. This ‘neo-classical’ economic model is not the only one available. For centuries many wonderful economists have examined and analyzed space, time and all manner of group interactions. Yet it unfortunately remains true that these rich parallel economic traditions remain marginalized.

To return to the theme; throughout history it can be shown, again and again, that it was not the overexploitation of the commons by local rural communities that led to environmental tragedies. Rather, in pre-capitalist times, it was overexploitation by the power elites and, in capitalist times, overexploitation by capitalist companies, that generally caused such environmental catastrophes. In the second half of this essay I will present one such example, the deforestation of a part of the French Pyrenees in the early 19th century.

As Raj Patel has commented, I think justly:

The environmental tragedies from the Dust Bowl to the mass extinctions of rainforest and ocean are the result of the behavior of corporations, of capitalist agriculture and forestry and fishing. The Dust Bowl happened because while individuals knew full well the value of the topsoil, their induction into capitalist agriculture turned them into exploiters of the very land on which their survival depended, transforming their connection to the world around them into one solely of short-term profit.

Why the Myth is Pernicious

Garrett Hardin clearly wasn’t the first person to highlight the supposed negative consequences of communal rights and practices. Aristotle even talked about it in the fourth century BC. In more recent times, and perhaps more pertinently, we can clearly see the company Hardin was keeping in the work of Ludwig von Mises – the conservative ‘Austrian School’ economist. Together with his somewhat more famous compatriot Friedrich von Hayek, von Mises did much to provide the philosophical underpinnings of modern American and Western Neo-Conservatism. In his 1947 work Human Action, von Mises wrote:

If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is utilized without any regard to the disadvantages resulting. Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns—lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil—do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation. For them the erosion of the soil, the depletion of the exhaustible resources and other impairments of the future utilization are external costs not entering into their calculation of input and output. They cut down the trees without any regard for fresh shoots or reforestation. In hunting and fishing they do not shrink from methods preventing the repopulation of the hunting and fishing grounds.

Regardless of its antecedents, it was Hardin’s own essay, and his coining of the term The Tragedy on the Commons, that has since become so supremely influential in both academic debate and, more importantly, in economic policy decision-making. This influence has been both insidious and pernicious. I have already alluded to the fact that Hardin’s Tragedy tends to ‘blame the victims’. I think this was best put in an insightful article written a few years ago by the Canadian Ian Angus:

 The fact that Hardin’s argument also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a bonus. Hardin’s essay has been widely used as an ideological response to anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and discontent among indigenous and other oppressed peoples everywhere in the world.

Big corporates are now extending property rights to our genetic inheritance

For decades international agencies, such as the IMF and World Bank, have based their policy prescriptions for the Third World and elsewhere on the implicit or explicit acceptance of the reality of the Tragedy of the Commons. Assuming it to be true, the corollary has been the necessity for countries to privatize all forms of collective ownership or use, and to better define and strengthen property rights. Such an approach has wreaked havoc around the globe.

More recently, we have even witnessed efforts to institute and profit from property rights in our planet’s genetic inheritance. Large agri-businesses sell (sometimes give) non-reproducing seeds to African farmers. No longer can they set aside some seed from each year’s crop to plant next year. They have to go back and buy the seed from the agri-businesses every year. Western companies are also claiming property rights in numerous natural gene sequences; extracted from plants, flowers and trees in the Amazon and elsewhere.

Many such companies couldn’t care less whether what they are doing can be justified morally or economically – they just want to make more profit. But whenever justifications are offered, they are, as often as not, couched in terms of The Tragedy of the Commons.

The Population Problem

It was Thomas Malthus in his 1798 publication entitled: An Essay on the Principle of Population, who first popularized the idea that population growth will tend to outrun the available food supply. If unchecked, populations will always grow geometrically (i.e. exponentially), whereas ‘the means of subsistence’ can only increase arithmetically. The world’s population would always tend to expand until famine, war, and disease eventually kept it in balance. He argued that there should be no relief measures for the poor, because they these would encourage excessive population growth and lead to disastrous social and environmental consequences.

Ecological disasters are at least as much caused by inequality as by overpopulation

Two hundred years later, when we consider the sheer numbers involved it is hard not to be both concerned and discouraged. The human population of the Earth today is nearing seven billion, two hundred years ago is was only around one billion, and if we go back to Roman times it is estimated that there were only about 231 million people on the whole planet – roughly one fifth of the population of India today! We are constantly reminded, though sadly to little effect, that we are living beyond the means of the earth, its natural resources and the sustainability of its eco-systems. The best estimate at present is that we would need two planets to sustainably support our present level of population, consuming at current levels. Though many many more if everyone consumed like the rich countries.

Looking back into history, many writers and commentators have presented past ecological and societal collapses as being predominantly caused by overpopulation. Jared Diamond is one of these. I will leave to one side some of the rather debatable analysis that Diamond presents for a number of his ‘collapses’; plus the fact that he seems to accept the ‘truth’ of the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons hook, line, and sinker. In his book, Collapse – How societies choose to fail or survive, he writes:

Population growth forced people to adopt intensified means of agricultural production… and to expand farming from the prime lands first chosen onto more marginal land, in order to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage…

Of great importance here is not so much the validity or otherwise of the historical analysis, rather it is the fact that Diamond sees all environmental collapses, in the past and still today, as being brought on by overpopulation. Garrett Hardin was also of this Malthusian overpopulation school. That is why he wrote his seminal essay. He tells us: ‘Man’s population problem is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.’ So while it might be the case that his whole rhetoric against the ‘commons’ was something of a red-herring, the growth in population was the absolutely central. His answer was to privatize everything that could conceivably be passed into private or corporate hands. When that wasn’t possible then draconian regulation was required:

The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it. But the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated.

The ultimate aim of Hardin’s plea was expounded in a long section of his essay called:Freedom to Breed Is Intolerable. One of his objectives was to eliminate any form of welfare support:

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, over breeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line–then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

He suggested that ‘poor’ people needed to be coerced into stopping breeding. Being a fair man he recognized that coercion can sometimes be unjust:

We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust—but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

The question here is justice and injustice for whom? It’s not in fact the millions of people living in the ‘third world’ who are causing the environmental disasters we are continuing to witness today. It is rather the massive level of consumption of people in the Western world and in certain industrialized parts of Asia. The average American consumes dozens of times more resources than the average African.  Just in the area of energy consumption, it has been calculated that each year a person in the United States has used as much energy by 2 am on the 2nd of January as a person in Tanzania uses in the whole year! The problem here isn’t just overpopulation but gross global inequalities as well.

One short micro-history of this myth is the companion piece:

Sources and references

Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth, Chicago, 2006; Garret Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, 1968; ElinorOstrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990, Susan Jane Buck Cox, No Tragedy on the Commons, Environmental Ethics, 1985 ; Ian Angus, The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons, Socialist Voice, 2008; Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798; Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, 1949

  1. A well-structured argument here. The challenge is that rate of environmental destruction is a function of two simple terms: per capita (unsustainable) resource use times number of people. If one doesn’t want to reduce personal consumption, the focus will be placed onto population. If one doesn’t want to focus on population control, the focus will be placed onto per capita consumption.

    However, the rate of destruction is equal to the product of these two terms, and so “nature” doesn’t care which is more blameful or blameworthy. Which is the “primary” cause of the rate of destruction? In a product of two terms, there is no “primary” cause. Each has equal influence. Unfortunately at present, BOTH terms are rising dramatically.

    One could have population growth without increased rate of destruction if per capita consumption were to decline (e.g. a equitable carbon footprint of a ton or two of carbon dioxide per person per year for all people around the world).

    • Stephen Lewis says:

      Great to hear from you Doug. I’ve been remiss in not being more in touch. Of course you are right and I’m presently writing something touching on this as a follow up to it’s about Energy Efficiency, the Jevons’ Paradox etc but still mostly about Dematerialization. Hope to see you again soon in Cambridge

      • David Gore says:

        There’s little gain from tearing apart Hardin’s less important views in “Tragedy of the Commons.” His pasture example involved no government regulation whatsoever. Therefore, an appropriate and presently practiced response would be to set up and enforce laws regarding the “commons” to preserve or conserve its resources. Privatization is an option, but should not be the focus of this argument. I don’t know why you felt the need to bash him on these sections when you could have simply taken away a logical concept; without rules, at least some people would cause destruction and ruin our resources. That’s exactly why every state in the U.S. has wildlife/fishery/environmental agencies that govern and enforce laws to protect our valuable “commons.”

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