Archive for the ‘Ecology’ Category

Most people believe that the Earth where we all live is being despoiled and threatened.  Only a few would deny that there is any problem at all. Various reasons for this predicament are proposed and various remedies offered. Some think that nothing can be done, or even that nothing should be done – that’s just the way it is. So let’s enjoy it while we can. Others put their faith in a technological fix. Yet others suggest that it’s all a question of individual consciousness – each of us needs to change the way we think if we are to live sustainably. But, wherever we might locate ourselves ideologically, how we express our views is important. Are we being precise? Do we make statements that are capable of empirical confirmation or refutation? Or are we obfuscating the issues? Knowingly or not, diverting attention away from the real causes of environmental disaster?

Here are two quotes, two uses of words

Mankind has already caused the extinction of thousands of species with processes like deforestation. (1)

The essence of the Western idea of progress can be simply stated: mankind has advanced in the past, is now advancing, and may be expected to continue advancing in the future. (2)

I’ve given the sources for these quotes at the end. They were both taken from extremely well researched and well written articles. I chose them more or less at random. There are thousands of similar ones. My point is not whether the statements are in some sense correct or not. Neither is it whether I or you agree. By concentrating on the use of words such as Mankind (Man, Humankind, or Humanity), I want to suggest that they are distinctly unhelpful in any debate, and certainly the debate about ecology and the environment. I could equally well have highlighted the reified word Western in the second quote, but for brevity I will refrain from this.

What do such statements really mean and what are the implications? This short essay is in part a critique of some of the language used in the ecological and environmental debate, and in part a plea for the use of more concrete and specific language. Before I continue, I would like to qualify my qualifications in this matter. I am not an academic linguist, nor a philosopher of language. I am certainly not an expert in semiotics. I am just a simple economist, historian and writer – with a concern for future of the Earth and all its inhabitants. Readers might take issue with some of my linguistic analysis. So be it! I just ask that the thrust of this argument is considered for what it is.

Let’s start with a simple sentence:

Sentence 1: George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.

This sentence uses correct English grammar, uncomplicated syntax, and doesn’t contain much lexical ambiguity. We know the subject, George, who did the cutting. We know he went somewhere, and we know which forest he went to. We also know what he did there: he cut down ten trees.  If we are sure that the person reporting the information is reliable and honest, we might even accept it as a fact and say it’s a true statement.

Now imagine that it was your neighbour who one day walked into your garden and announced: ‘George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.’ What does he mean by this? What is his intention in telling you? After all, without some sort of context, it would be a rather bizarre thing to do. He might add the context himself by going on to say that this is wonderful news because George is building a house and he needed the wood. On the other hand, he might not feel the need to add anything at all because he knows from past experience that both he and you are concerned about the survival of the forest and, therefore, without it needing to be said, George’s action was reprehensible. Even if your neighbour had no intention at all when he uttered the sentence – which might be a little strange – you could, and probably would, want to put your own interpretation on the news. Sometimes you might be able to do this without any more information at all. You know George, you know what he’s up to and why, and you know what you personally think of such actions. On other occasions, you might want additional information before you can make up your mind what this sentence really means to you. For example: Did someone pay him to do this? What did he use to cut down the trees? What type of trees did he cut down?  Why did he cut the trees down? How many trees are there in the forest?

Once we obtain the extra information we think we need, we can interpret what the sentence means to us. We can even, if we wish, make a value judgement, based, at least in part, on our own morality and ideology: ‘I think that what George did was good (or bad) because…’ Was he a hero or a villain? We might even decide that something has to be done. Either we decide to go and help George next time he goes to the forest, or we might start to look for ways of stopping him.

The key point here is this: whatever our interpretation and whatever our ideology, the sentence itself has not unduly hindered us from making up our minds.

Sentence 2: He went into the forest and cut down ten trees.

I have done two things here: Replace the noun George with the pronoun he, and taken away the information telling us which forest George went into. All the considerations that were applicable to Sentence 1 still apply here. But because he is a little vaguer than George, we might first need to ask: ‘Who’s he?’ or ‘Which forest?’

Sentence 3: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees.

A little semantic obscurity creeps in here. Did he cut down ten trees in total or ten trees every day? But this could soon be cleared up by asking another question. The sentence could then become:

Sentence 4: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees each day.

Let’s go a step further:

Sentence 5: Over the last twelve years, logging companies have gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.

The scale and duration of the tree cutting has increased – but we still know something about who was responsible, who caused it: it was logging companies, though we don’t know which ones. Yet we still don’t know where the forests are that are being cut down.

This means we might (or we might not) need to ask additional questions before we think we have enough information to be able to interpret the information the sentence provides. We will probably still want to know more about the context of the logging. Which forests? Why was it happening? Was it to build roads? Was it to provide open land to rear cattle to supply hamburger chains? Who is profiting? What were the effects of the logging on local communities? Is ten thousand trees a day a lot?

When we have asked enough additional questions, and obtained what we hope are reliable answers, we can then make up our minds:

‘This is wonderful! With nine billion people on the planet we need to supplement agricultural land wherever we can!’


‘This is horrendous; we are destroying our eco-systems and bringing destitution to countless local people!’

Logging companies is, in linguistic terms, a plural countable noun. We can say ‘four logging companies’ as well as ‘some logging companies’. Let’s change the sentence again:

Sentence 6: Over the last twelve years, business has gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.

Note that I have skipped the step of using a simple plural countable noun such as businesses. Instead I have used the word business, which is called in linguistics a singular uncountable noun. It’s singular because we say ‘business is’ not ‘business are’; it’s non countable because we can’t say ‘five business’, although we can still say ‘some business’.

This starts to make our task of giving meaning to the sentence and making an interpretation even more long-winded. More questions need to be asked – if we can be bothered. Questions such as: Which businesses do you mean? What type of companies are they? How many? And so on.

In addition, we can also remove any information regarding the duration of logging, the number of trees cut, or even mention of ‘the forest’ itself, or of any specific forest:

Sentence 7: Business continues to deforest the world.

This sentence may still be a true statement of fact; but we are getting so far removed from knowing who precisely has done what, where, and with what result, that it’s starting to become a little meaningless. But at least the verb deforest still has some understandable meaning, and the noun business still points, though very dimly, at the responsible subject.

The penultimate sentence is this:

Sentence 8: Humans continue to deforest the world.

Again it’s still true, but now any precision whatsoever regarding who is actually cutting down the trees has disappeared completely. It’s just the collective plural humans. It completely begs the whole question of which humans? Never mind all the other questions we have already asked; such as: which forests, where, when, for what purpose, who benefits and who loses? It seems to imply, I would suggest, that we (or we humans) are all responsible; the small peasant farmer in Africa just as much as the large capitalist agri-businesses or ‘roving-pirate’ logging companies.

And so to our final sentence:

Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation.

One could equally say Mankind, but Humankind is a little less gender specific. Here we reach the apogee of vagueness. Indeed, we have now somehow reified everything. Reification, from the Latin word res (meaning thing) usually means making a concept real, bringing it into being or making it something concrete.  More generally:

Reification in thought occurs when an abstract concept describing a relationship or context is treated as a concrete ‘thing’, or if something is treated as if it were a separate object when this is inappropriate because it is not an object or because it does not truly exist in separation.

As is often the case, German has a much more expressive word: Verdinglichung. Literally this is the process of ‘turning into a thing’. This process is of great importance. Often we talk about reification as being the act of changing abstract concepts, say truth, beauty or beautiful, into supposedly real or concrete things: Truth or Beauty. Notice how reification nearly always involves capitalization! But it’s not just limited to this. We can also turn a meaningful noun such as a man into a vague, reified concept such as Mankind – and give this concept the qualities of a real thing.

Philosophers, particularly it should be said German and French philosophers, and mostly of the Idealistic or Existential variety, love to reify concepts or processes. One could mention Heidegger’s ‘The Being of Becoming’ (Das Sein des Seiendes), or Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ (L’être et le néant) – to mention just two vacuous ontological obfuscations. ‘To be’ and ‘to become’ are verbs of condition or process: I am a man; a seed becomes a tree. You can’t hold am or becomes; and you certainly can’t talk to them or hold them responsible. But this is precisely what reification does. We make the simple verb ‘to become’ into a real thing and then we can start to interrogate it and even pass judgements on it!

George is a real thing or object. Actually he is a person (who can even act as a subject as well). Even the pronoun he refers to a person in our example. ‘A human’ usually refers to somebody concrete, though it can be used otherwise. With the use of humans, though it is tremendously vague, if it is used in the present tense then we could, at least in theory, go and introduce ourselves to all these humans, whether that means all homo sapiens or just a proportion of them.

But reification isn’t only about transforming an abstract concept such as beauty or beautiful into Beauty, or even a verb such as ‘to become’ in Becoming. It can also involve transforming simple nouns or adjectives into collective concepts, and then treating these concepts as though they had real concrete qualities – qualities such as volition or the ability to cause physical effects in the world. We can also reify a noun, signifying a real entity, such as a man, into Mankind, or a human (or the adjective Humane) into Humankind.

This isn’t to imply that using such reified words as Mankind, Humankind, or Humanity leads to a complete semantic lack of meaning. If I write the rather inelegant sentence: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with Humanity’, I guess most people will roughly understand what I’m getting at. Some might even place the word Humanity inside inverted commas. Not to signify a quotation, but rather to alert the reader to the fact that the word is some sort of abstract concept, or perhaps that its meaning is contested, or even to signify some sort of post-modernist irony. But Humanity is not a living thing; it can’t have empathy with anybody! Ultimately it’s not an ‘it’. I might want to make my sentence slightly more understandable by writing for example: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with other parts of Humanity.’ Immediately you can notice that I’ve already split up Humanity into parts or groups – in order to be more precise with regards to whom exactly it is I might be suggesting has empathy with whom? I might go a step further in this direction and rewrite my sentence as follows: ‘The greatest redeeming factor of all people is that they have empathy with all other people.’ Immediately, I would suggest, by de-reifying the words it’s much easier for readers to either agree with the statement or want to refute it. The path is immediately open for anyone to say: ‘Well that’s not true; most people don’t empathize with others!’ It is also much more amendable to the design of a scientific test of the validity of the proposition. Of course, it could be argued that the original sentence, which twice uses the word Humanity, can be equally contested in the same way. That it is equally amenable to scientific refutation or confirmation. But one can’t test any statement about Humanity as it doesn’t exist. In order to do so one would need to translate the statement into a testable form – by using such words as ‘all people’.

A final point on Sentence 9 is perhaps of interest – though it is not critical. Here is the sentence again:

Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation

It is surely a wonderful thing that English, and many other languages, can evolve and create such verbs as deforest and a noun such as deforestation. Google begets ‘to google’!  But using the word Deforestation is also reification. Deforestation isn’t a thing, I would argue it’s not even a process, it’s an idea. So if we say: ’Deforestation is causing major problems for the people of Bangladesh’, this is just evasion. Somebody, or some group of people, somewhere is actually cutting down the trees for a specific purpose.

So in what way does this all matter? In general or as it relates to the debate about ecology and the environment. Surely it’s all semantics – both in terms of the scientific and linguistic meaning of the word and in its everyday usage! I would contend not. My argument regarding the use of vague or reified words such as Mankind, Humankind, Humanity and such like can be summarized as follows:

  • The subject is not a real person or group of people. It is not even an identifiable group: a class, a government or certain private companies.
  • Reified concepts such as Humankind can’t do or cause anything.
  • Even if the statement is understandable, has some meaning, and even if it is in some way ‘true’, it is usually just a platitude or a tautology.
  • This means that who actually is causing the effects, the damage (yes ‘cause and effect’) can’t be identified or held accountable.
  • Implicitly or explicitly, the culprit is everybody – even though this is blatantly not the case.
  • This can lead to Quietism, to a turning in on one-self. I am as much to blame as anyone else so I must work on myself!
  • As I do so the real culprits can just go on as if nothing matters – except their own profit.

That is not the end of the story. If I write the sentence: ‘the majority of the destruction of the forests in the Amazon over the last thirty years has been carried out by private capitalist companies from the rich countries; intent only on their own profit.’ This is a statement that is amenable to confirmation or refutation. For the sake of argument, people at either extreme of the ideological divide might even agree to it. But even if capitalist companies were the proximate cause of the felling, there are at least two retorts. One is that while this may be true it is Mankind’s incessant demand for resources and industrial and consumer products that is the underlying or ultimate cause. The logging companies are only meeting that need. Once again we are back to the reified concept of Mankind. Whose consumer needs are being met? Another often used retort is simply that the desire to maximize profit lies at the core of a successful economy and must be encouraged in all circumstances. Fair enough, but at least we know the field upon which the battle must be fought. It’s not a question of Mankind’s collective culpability, but purely a question of who really benefits and who loses – including, we might add, in the non-human world.

Finally, I think it is important to add that many contemporary commentators and historians do not fall into this quagmire of language. They try to tell, as explicitly and truthfully as they can, what is happening now and or what happened in the world in the past. This might be regarding commercial logging in Africa or Indonesia or it might be what is their interpretation of what happened during the land clearances and Enclosures in Britain.

Here are two sentences that I have written – one contemporary and one historical:

Despite the ban on commercial whaling, every year hundreds of whales are still being illegally slaughtered by Japanese commercial whalers in the Antarctic sanctuary – using the pretence of Research.

Note I haven’t written: ‘Mankind is killing the whales.’

The Ariège forests in France were not decimated by hundreds of years of communal usage. Most trees were cut down by rich private capitalists for private gain following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  

Note I haven’t written: ‘Humans caused deforestation in the Pyrenees.’

You might or might not agree with my two statements, but at least they are clear. And it wouldn’t be too difficult to go about confirming or falsifying them. It’s even pretty obvious (if you accept them) what might need to be done!

I am not immune to using the type of language I have described, but I think it is unhelpful and even invidious and I will try to avoid it in the future.



2. Robert Nisbet, Idea of Progress, Literature and Liberty, Cato Institute, 1978.

This shortened version of an interview with the Green Party’s economic spokesperson Molly Scott Cato was published in the Autumn issue of Positive News.

Stephen Lewis talks to Green Party economic spokesperson Molly Scott Cato about a new approach to economics

Molly Scott Cato is a green economist and expert in the social economy    Photo © Tim Dickeson

“We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.” This is the view of the chancellor, George Osborne, who suggested last year that protecting the environment and minimising climate change are burdens on the economy. But for others, this perspective is naive when the environment is the ultimate source of wealth and growth.

Molly Scott Cato, author of Green Economics and economics spokesperson for the Green Party, believes it is possible to have an economy, “that lives comfortably within the planet, addresses the social justice implications and is practically focused in terms of policy and community activity.”

However, this is not occurring, she believes, because “what happens in economies,” has drifted apart from how economics is taught in higher education.

Neoclassical economic theory, upon which our current system is based, is flawed because it is self-referential, says Molly: “Whatever question you put to it, it has an answer within its own ideology, but very little of what it does relates to what’s happening outside the window of the university. This is why they [neoclassical economists] weren’t able to predict the economic crisis and why they don’t worry about resource depletion.”

Most green economists derive much of their understanding from ecological economics, an approach that Molly feels is more grounded in reality. This understanding regards nature as the primary source of wealth and resources. To have a viable economy hence means that addressing the problems of dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, CO2 emissions and climate change is central.

With the need for renewable energy sources being the first pillar of green economics, this also connects to the issue of localisation, as much energy is wasted in the globalised system. Green economists also favour localisation for reasons of accountability, power and control.

“Local economies help to build strong communities whereas a global economy undermines them,” believes Molly.

Other politicians are beginning to praise the potential of a green economy. Energy secretary Ed Davey commented in April, for example: “We should make more strongly the business case for going green. Efficiency policies are unashamedly good for growth – using less resources lowers operating costs and frees up capital.”

But the defining characteristic of a green economist, according to Molly, is the idea that economic growth is the problem rather than the solution to the global economic crisis. “We start from the point that quality is more important than quantity,” she says.

“There is some good thinking in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but by the time it gets to the Treasury it is crushed by the same last-century, pro-growth prejudices. The main problem is that the government is going for growth, so saying growth might not be the best thing for the planet, isn’t going to get very far.”

Within what the Green Party regards as the constraints of the current system, Molly’s main proposal is: “We should only invest energy in areas where we know ultimately that we will use less energy – what we might call ‘transitional investment.’”

She explains that this understanding would mean that it would make sense to invest in a national network of electric car recharging points or in insulating people’s houses, but building a new airport could not be justified.

Green economists are also suggesting carbon and land taxes. They want to see policies that will help us use land as a carbon sink. “We could use the tax system coupled with the local planning system to encourage that,” says Molly, “taking land away from wealthy farmers living from subsidies paid by the poor, and providing incentives for all those who own land to use it in the way that best captures and stores carbon.”

Green economists believe that traditional economics is unlikely to be able to make a real contribution to alleviating poverty, tackling environmental problems and moving us towards a more fair and sustainable world. If they’re right, new types of economics in which human and environmental justice are the foundation, might be the answer to building a more sustainable future.

Uniting the Greens was originally published in Resurgence/The Ecologist issue 274, September/October 2012. To buy Resurgence, read further articles online or find out about The Resurgence Trust, visit: 

The environment movement has been plagued by disagreements and in particular a rift between deep ecologists and social ecologists. Stephen Lewis explores ways to find common ground.

In the 1980s and 1990s there was a lively debate between social ecologists and deep ecologists. In 1988 The Ecologist even devoted a whole issue to this debate (Vol. 18 No. 4/5). It has flared up on several occasions since, often couched in the rather opaque language of ‘anthropocentrism’ versus ‘ecocentrism’.

Murray Bookchin was one of the earliest ecological activists who championed the idea of social ecology. He started to highlight and analyse the ecological crisis some years before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. “Social ecology”, he said, “is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems.” For him and his followers it was the rise of dominance and hierarchy that had caused both the oppression of people and the despoliation of the planet. You couldn’t hope to address ecological ills without changing the ruling economic order. Bookchin’s ‘solution’ was local democratic communalism. His thinking has had a great influence on many ecological thinkers and activists.

The roots of deep ecology are more eclectic. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss is credited with coining the term and is often referred to as the father of deep ecology. The basic philosophy is that all the diverse forms of life on Earth have intrinsic value and their value is independent of any usefulness to humans; indeed humans have no right to reduce diversity except to satisfy vital needs. As well as this, deep ecology recognises the ecological damage humans are doing and explicitly acknowledges that a decrease in human population is required.

In the 1980s, Dave Foreman and a few others – people who described themselves, perhaps misguidedly, as deep ecologists – wrote a series of articles that appeared in the Earth First! Journal and elsewhere. Very much in the spirit of eugenicist Garrett Hardin, these were misanthropic neo-Malthusian pieces on the issue of over-population. They claimed, in the words of Stephan Harding, that “the AIDs virus was good because it reduced population, and that famines in Africa were good because they too reduced population”. They also had some derogatory things to say about social ecology. Now Bookchin was a pugnacious character, so he responded in kind, denouncing the anti-humanism of the authors. But his critique also extended to the whole of deep ecology: “Whatever its merits, the fact is that deep ecology, more than any other ‘radical’ ecological perspective, blames ‘Humanity’ as such for the ecological crisis – especially ordinary ‘consumers’ and ‘breeders of children’ – while largely ignoring the corporate interests that are really plundering the planet. This socially neutral aspect of deep ecology appears to be very agreeable to the powers that be.”

Harding regards this whole exchange as “water under the bridge”. Any distinction between deep and social ecology has become, he says, a “false dichotomy”: “First, as Arne Næss would have said, there’s no one central dogma in deep ecology. Everybody has to work out their own ecosophy, their own ecological wisdom. So these people by calling themselves deep ecologists had completely misunderstood the key point. Second, the first guiding principle for Arne Næss was that all life has intrinsic value, and ‘all life’ includes humans, therefore to be anti-human is not in tune with deep ecology… Bookchin was right to attack the anti-human views of Dave Foreman etc., but he was wrong to attack deep ecology, because these views have nothing to do with deep ecology…”

Harding continues: “I have a lot of respect for Bookchin. Arne Næss’s philosophy is radically pluralistic and different people have to work at different points of the frontier… For Bookchin the important thing is to reconnect with each other and then we’ll treat Nature properly. For Arne, if we reconnect with Nature we will treat each other better. Both are different viewpoints on the same spectrum.”

Brian Tokar was a colleague of Murray Bookchin for many years. He was also one of the people who contributed to the debate in the pages of The Ecologist back in 1988. In a long, thoughtful and quite conciliatory piece entitled Deep Ecology, Social Ecology and the Future of Green Political Thought, he wrote: “The increasingly bitter debate between these approaches, with their very different theoretical assumptions and political styles, threatens to obscure the essential work of movement-building and the development of more lasting alliances among people dedicated to saving the earth and creating more ecologically sound ways to live upon it. Instead of becoming further mired in sectarian debates between philosophical approaches that increasingly define themselves in opposition to one another, eco-activists need to begin evolving a broader approach, firmly grounded in a commitment to ecologically-sound living.”

More than 20 years later Tokar still eschews the more “polemical and divisive” language of his mentor, believing that greens need to find common ground. He says: “Movements are stronger when people with different views that have aspects in conflict, but others that are complementary, are able to collaborate to move a larger common agenda forward.” Of course, being a social ecologist, he regards active opposition to hierarchy and domination as crucial; yet he is positively effusive when it comes to the contribution of certain deep ecologists. He mentions John Seed and Joanna Macy. “They are two people who are most identified with the side of deep ecology that most emphasises personal therapy and ritual, but they always encourage people to be active.”

The question of population or, for some, over-population, has often been seen as a sort of dividing line in politics and policy. It remains a hot topic (see Jonathon Porritt’s article in Resurgence 274). Green MP Caroline Lucas recently called it “an elephant in the room when it comes to many environmental debates”.

Tokar and Harding have a similar take on the issue. Tokar says: “The question is whether we’re going to really try to understand the causes of rapid population growth or view it merely as a matter of numbers and demographics.” Harding thinks that the population issue is possibly a red herring. It might be that the planet could support 10 billion people for a while. “It’s not population per se that’s the problem; it is over-consumption, which has got to do with inequality,” he says. So women in poor countries need “good health care, education and access to contraception” while the other area of focus must be the unequal distribution of resources between rich and poor countries.

Others see things slightly differently. Writing in The Independent in October 2011, Jonathon Porritt described over-population as the crisis that “dare not speak its name”. He added: “Damage to soil, fresh water, forests, biodiversity and fisheries affect both the rich world and the poor world, and cannot any longer be blamed on ‘over-consumption in the West’.” He asserts that by avoiding the issue for too long the green movement has scored an own goal.

Overall there is a remarkable degree of convergence between Stephan Harding’s and Brian Tokar’s views. To the extent that their opinions are in some way representative of the two ecological philosophies – deep ecology and social ecology – then perhaps any lingering differences between them can now be consigned to the waste bin of history. And it would probably be good if they were, because what is surely more important is what actions we now take.

Almost without exception greens, of whatever philosophical persuasion, are involved in some form of activism, and very often some form of direct action as well.

Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is not averse to making provocative statements that many social ecologists and others can find misanthropic. But does it really matter what his ‘philosophy’ is? He and the Sea Shepherd volunteers have arguably done more to obstruct and prevent the slaughter of whales and other sea creatures than any other single organisation.

The Occupy movement might seem quite different. One of its supporters is physicist and activist Vandana Shiva. Although she comes from a Gandhian background, parts of her recent article in Resurgence (No. 270) in support of the movement could have come straight out of one of Bookchin’s books. Having referred to ‘hierarchy and domination’, the key words in social ecology, she goes on to say: “‘Free markets’ mean freedom for corporations to exploit whomever and whatever they wish, wherever they wish and however they wish. It means the end of freedom for people and Nature everywhere.” No hint of an opposition between social and deep ecology here.

The social or political philosophy that informs people’s actions is important – be it deep ecology, social ecology or anything else. But what is really crucial is that some action is being taken.

Note: This issue was covered in the Ecologist, in Vol. 18 No. 4/5. UK filmmaker, Mark Saunders is currently crowd funding for a documentary on the life and work of Murray Bookchin. For more information: <>;

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

A short micro-history on “The Myth of The Tragedy of the Commons”

Many European mountain communities held on to their common rights to use the forest well into the 19th century. Elinor Ostrom is fond of highlighting the example of how this was the case in the Swiss Alps – where viable and long-standing communal use and ownership patterns in the highlands co-existed with private ownership in the valleys. Such was also the case in the French Pyrenees in the early decades of the 19th century.

This was still a highly forested and remote world. Local historian Georges Labouysse describes it thus: ‘The conditions of life of these mountain dwellers were hard. They live in autarky in remote valleys where the means of communication were difficult…. They didn’t know what was happening in the outside world. Most of the time they weren’t even aware of the successive changes of regime since the Revolution: from 1815 to 1830 as follows: Napoleon 1st, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe: four sovereigns in fifteen years!’ He goes on to tell us:

From times immemorial, the poor country people of the Pyrenees had freely used the forest to survive: tree trunks to construct their houses, dead wood to warm themselves, grazing for small herds, poaching and wild foraging and clearing and burning to create  a few pastures.

A charcoal burner’s hut in the forest

These community rights of usage (usufruct) were coupled with quite widespread communal ownership of land and, particularly, of forests. In fact, French historians have shown that, in contrast to the situation in the rest of France, in the Pyrenees forests were, in the majority of cases, owned in common by the local communities who lived in them. Some such communal rights and ownership patterns went back to Roman and Visigoth times, but others had had to be extracted in the early Middle Ages from the local Lords – either voluntarily or often after long fights. What is more, these rights of use did not constitute a free-for-all. Just as with the English ‘commons’, these mountain communities knew precisely who had a right to what and the extent of these rights in terms of how much could be used or taken. Mostly these rights were not written down, which was to cause problems later on, but they were explicit and informal mechanisms had evolved to ensure that the rights were not abused.

In terms of any Tragedy of the Commons, the first important point here is that there wasn’t one. The local communities had used the forests for centuries, and although they had carved out a few small plots to cultivate agricultural products, or on which to graze their cattle, there had been negligible impact on the extent of forest cover and on the health of the trees. Such communities led a rather meager life to be sure, but it had certainly been, to use a modern word, ‘sustainable’.

Yet things were changing in the outside world, and not just in terms of monarchs. In the early days of the French Revolution, communities were turned into ‘communes’, but these communes remained the proprietors of the forests. Things soon changed when Napoleon took charge of the country. He called the Ariège, the Pyrenean region with which I will be primarily concerned, ‘the land of iron and of men’. He had need of both – the men for his armies, and the iron mines to supply his forges. He also needed the Pyrenean forests to supply charcoal for these forges. So he nationalized them all – they all became the property of the state. It was at this time, and over the next few decades, that deforestation in the Pyrenees started to pick up.

Iron forges like this sprang up all over the Pyrenees – they consumed huge quantities of charcoal

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the ‘national’ forests were privatized. They were sold, often at knock-down prices, to the ‘rich bourgeoisie’. They became private property. The new proprietors of the forests, who were often also the owners of the large iron forges of the region, didn’t want to have any truck with the local communities’ ancestral forest rights, which they vehemently contested. Their sole interest was their own profit. Many significant fortunes were made by cutting down the trees ‘sans pitié’ to feed a rising French industry and its steam engines. It should be added that French industry was at this time (the 1820s and 1830s) still almost totally dependent on charcoal – only much later did coal come into general use.

The new regime was brought into law in 1827, with the passing of a national Forest Code. All rights of forest usage were suppressed and any ‘paysan’ who continued to exercise such rights would in future be considered, literally, an outlaw and be liable to huge fines or imprisonment. During the debates, one Deputy explicitly stated why the Forest Code was necessary:

Industry whose prosperity is growing every day demands immense resources from our forests, (resources) that mining in the entrails of the earth can’t replace, above all for reasons of combustible quality.

No question here of any Tragedy of the Commons or such like. Industry needed the wood and thus the forests would fall. To enforce their private property rights the new proprietors kicked the local people off the land and recruited ‘forest guards’ to keep them off. For the local communities all this was a disaster. For generations they had relied on the forests to survive; now they were facing destitution. Most local people couldn’t be expected to fully understand the larger political and economic forces that were starting to play out, but they could see what the consequences were for themselves in their own locales. They had been kicked out of their ‘ancestral’ forests, hated forest guards had been employed to keep them out, whole swathes of forest were being felled and more and more charcoal burning forges were appearing everywhere.

They had to resist. Starting 1n 1828 they did so. This was the famous (at least locally) Guerre des Demoiselles. The new forest proprietors, who were usually also the owners of the forges, had contested the communities’ right to use the forests. When the communities had sought redress in the local courts they were asked to show written documentary proof. Of course such ‘charters’ granting these rights had either never existed or had long since been destroyed. But the locals looked for them in any case. On the 4th September 1828 they broke into the Town Hall of Sentein in the Ariège and broke open chests looking for such documentary proof – but in vain. Labouysse describes what happened next, in despair:

They undertook actions which were to mark the collective memory of this country (pays). Thus in February 1829, in the forest of Bethmale, the agents of repression – the famous forest guards paid by the private proprietors or by the State and whom the population called Salamanders (because their uniforms were black and yellow) roughly searched the houses of a few isolated peasants. Suddenly eight men appeared, disguised and armed with various instruments, who chased them away. This is the start of a permanent insurrection.

In 1829 and 1830 the resistance grew and spread over the whole region. Eventually it is estimated that 150,000 people were involved. In general, the resistance was comprised of young men, usually under twenty, joined by numerous veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. The bands became larger, and local leaders emerged. The most famous of these was called ‘Vidalou’ – in reality a certain Jean-Baptiste Lafforgue. Wherever they went, the forest guards, the Salamanders, were confronted by groups of such ‘disguised’ young men, who tried to stop them preventing access to the forests. They were in fact disguised as women or ladies (Demoiselles), hence the name given to the insurrection: La Guerre des Demoiselles. On eyewitness has left us this description of the Demoiselles:

The leader with whom I spoke was very tall, wore a underskirt over his …  grey trousers, had a sheep’s skin on his head which covered his whole face, (and) where he had made three openings to be able to see and breath; he wore a light cavalry sabre. Another, armed with an axe and of normal height, was covered with a dress tightened with a red belt to which was attached a pistol; his face was smeared black, with pig bristles implanted all over his face, and mainly in his eyebrows and top lip; he was ‘coiffured’ with a ‘shako’ (a hussar’s helmet). The rest of the band was more or less dressed in the same manner.

The bizarre disguises were necessary to prevent the Demoiselles from being identified. When individuals were brought before the courts they were often released because there was no solid evidence as to true their identity. Yet the manner in which they were dressed also finds echoes in the history of the local carnivals when, similar to the tradition in much of Europe, for a few days each year the world really was ‘turned upside down’. Lords served the peasants and women lorded it over men.

The Demoiselles had the support of nearly all the local population, including most of the village Mayors. The prefect of the Ariège wrote to the French Minister of the Interior in 1830 that it wouldn’t be of any use to try to plant spies or informers in the communities because:

The interests of the country people of the Ariège, in matters that concern the forests, are so linked that one can’t hope to find secret agents for the authorities, other than by buying them at a very high price.

The people of the Ariege still celebrate the victory of the Demoiselles

But the central government needed to act to protect the rights of private property. They had been told that ‘the inhabitants of the Ariège were ‘as savage and brutal as the bears they raise’. They sent in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmerie. But to little effect, despite instituting the notion of ‘collective responsibility’ even for individual ‘subversive’ acts. Not only did the Demoiselles have the support of the local populace – even the local freemasons, clergy, postmen and customs men were on their side – but they were also employing classic hit and run guerilla tactics, which the French troops found difficult to counter. As military repression didn’t seem to be working, the government decided to negotiate. Finally, on the 23rd February 1831, the French Interior Ministry issued an ordinance revoking all the statutes of the 1827 forest code. A general amnesty was proclaimed; all convicted offenders were released and all trials stopped. Ancestral rights to the use of the forest were restored. The people of the Ariège had won a significant, historic, but ultimately Pyrrhic, victory!

By the 1830s, many regions of the Pyrenean uplands were indeed experiencing significant deforestation. Michael Williams quotes several contemporary reports that described the scene ‘with phrases and words like “landscapes of desolation,” “blasted,” “terrible aspect,” and “terrible nudity of bare and sterile rock.”’ But, as we have seen, this deforestation, at least in the Pyrenees, was not the result of local communities having had common use of the forests, it was quite clearly the result, first of Napoleon’s need to wood to supply his armies and, later, of the privatized forests being exploited by private owners to supply wood and charcoal for the French industrial revolution.

The Ariege forests were saved as much by the shift to coal as by reforestation programmes

The Demoiselles were to return sporadically over the course of the next forty years. But in the long-term they weren’t able to stop the private felling and exploitation of the Pyrenean forests. This went on. The local people found it more and more difficult to survive, as their forests were cut down and their access and use was increasingly hampered. Like millions of Europeans in the 19th century, they emigrated in their droves to the growing towns and cities of France. There to become new members of the burgeoning urban proletariat. As regards the forests of the Pyrenees, what is left of them today can’t be put down to later French reforestation efforts, of which there were many, but rather they owe their existence to the fact that eventually French industry shifted to the use of coal, and later imported oil, and away from charcoal, as its primary source of energy. In this sense fossil fuels did save some of Europe’s forests.

What I hope is clear from this modest micro-history is that the deforestation that took place in the French Pyrenees was not caused at all by a Tragedy of the Commons. It was the result of political and economic developments in France as a whole and, at the local level, the deforestation was carried out by the new private owners of the forests, not by the local communities who had lost their rights to use the ‘commons’.

Sources and references

 Georges Labouysse,  D’étranges demoiselles,  Occitania, 2006 ; François Baby, La guerre des Demoiselles en Ariège (1829-1872), Montbel, 1972;  Jean-François Soulet, Les Pyrénées au XIXe siècle. L’éveil d’une société civile, éditions Sud-Ouest, Luçon, 2004;René Dupont, La guerre des Demoiselles dans les forêts de l’Ariège (1829-1831), Travaux du laboratoire forestier de Toulouse; Toulouse ; Prosper Barousse, Les Demoiselles, La Mosaïque du Midi, 1839 ; Michel Dubedat, Le procès des Demoiselles. Résistance à l’application du Code forestier dans les montagnes de l’Ariège (1828-1830), Bulletin de la société ariégeoise des sciences lettres et arts, 1899-1900.

This is an interview I recently conducted with the well-known environmental campaigner Bill McKibben. It is published in the summer print edition of the excellent Positive News (see below). The online version is here:

This is an interview I recently conducted with the editor of Resurgence magazine (just merged with The Ecologist). It is published in the summer print edition of the excellent Positive News (see below). The online version is here:

Forty-five years ago E. F. Schumacher was one of a group who started a magazine called Resurgence. In 1973 he handed the reins to Satish Kumar. Resurgence has been carrying the flame of Small is Beautiful ever since. Stephen Lewis recently talked with Satish Kumar.

Back in the early 1970s, awareness of humankind’s destructive impact on the environment wasn’t exactly new. A decade before, the American biologist Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring; a book that had a great influence on the emerging environmental movement. Others, such as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and social ecologist Murray Bookchin, had already alerted us to a looming ecological catastrophe.

But these were the days before the first oil shock. The 1960s were a time during which most political and social struggle had focused on achieving ‘personal liberation’ from a rather stultifying post-war Conservatism, on anti-war protest, and on the fight for civil rights. Except in a few isolated pockets there wasn’t much talk of biodiversity, ecology, resource depletion or the future of the planet.

E F Schumacher - Author of 'Small is Beautiful'

Looking back, perhaps with a degree of nostalgia for supposedly simpler times, many of a ‘certain age’ will remember the profound effect the writings of the radical economist E. F. Schumacher had on them. The title of his most famous book, Small is Beautiful, is now part of the English language. It is used and misused as frequently as certain Biblical, Shakespearean or Churchillean quotations. Small is Beautiful – which carried the pointed and poignant subtitle Economics as if people mattered – is both a critique of rampant and inappropriate industrialization and a philosophy for life.  Schumacher was a devout Christian. Indeed he very nearly called his book Christian Economics, but reasoned, ‘Who would buy that?’ Yet he had also been tremendously influenced by Buddhism and Gandhian thought while working in Burma. Thus perhaps he was a natural soul mate for a young Indian who arrived in the UK on a lecture tour in 1971 – hoping to bring the issue of Bangladeshi independence more into the public spotlight. That person was Satish Kumar.

Kumar had been a Jain monk and was seeped in Mahatma Gandhi’s ethic of non-violent resistance to oppression. At the height of the Cold War, inspired by British philosopher and peace activist Bertrand Russell, he had spent years walking the world bringing a message of Peace and Reconciliation. A journey he has chronicled in his autobiography No destination.

Although they had already met, it was during this visit that Schumacher asked Kumar to take over the editorship of a magazine called Resurgence – which Schumacher had co-founded in 1967. In his own words, Kumar was ‘hesitant’ to accept the offer: ‘I wanted to go back to India to work within the Gandhian movement.’  Schumacher pressed him: ‘Why are you hesitant? Why don’t you stay here? There are lots of Gandhians in India; we need one in the UK. Help build bridges between East and West!’ So he stayed and took over as editor of Resurgence in 1973. He remains its editor to this day. Editor of a magazine the Guardian once called the ‘artistic and spiritual flagship of the Green movement’. He’s also been instrumental in founding the Schumacher College, the Small School and the publishing house Green Books.

Satish Kumar - Editor of Resurgence since 1973

Regardless of his extensive travels, we might just be able to imagine how a former Jain monk, coming from a tradition where even stepping on an insect is to be avoided, could have found the transition to living permanently in the Britain of the early 1970s somewhat hard.  Kumar admits that he found the move to the West ‘culturally unsettling’, even ‘a cultural shock’. Although, he adds, ‘I never experienced any racism and found plenty of support for all my endeavours.’

 The West he experienced was:

A society where money, finance and material possessions were all powerful … everything was measured in terms of materialistic benefit; everything needed to have a financial validity and needed to be measured in terms of money, even education and health.

But, he adds, ‘I preferred to measure things with other values.’ What are these other values he talks about, and how does Resurgence express them? The first, he stresses, derives from his Jain and Gandhian background, and is embodied in the ‘tone’ of Resurgence. It is, he maintains, a non-violent magazine. Non-violent to Nature, non-violent to others and non-violent to one self:

The way we say things in Resurgence is gentle and non-violent. This is a different approach to other magazines which can be aggressive, critical and didactic. In this we stand out. Spirituality and ecology are two sides of the same coin. Nature is alive and we need to have reverence for it and for people.

Now many would strenuously argue that any distinction between a materialistic West and a spiritual East is unhelpful. Despite a Buddhist history, there is absolutely no evidence that Eastern governments or businesses act better, or less materialistically, than their Western counterparts. Japanese factory ships continue their illegal slaughter of whales in the Antarctic, grotesquely representing their nakedly commercial actions as legal ‘research’. Mitsubishi buys up all the stocks of bluefin tuna it can get its hands on – to freeze them in anticipation of huge profits once they become extinct and their price goes through the roof. The Chinese scramble to claim and appropriate the resources of Africa. While in India, a cruel caste system remains in place. Kumar acknowledges, with regret, that this is true:

Indian governments and businesses have become very much like the West. They are now all about mammon and GDP. They are turning their backs on Gandhi and the Buddha. In the name of progress, development, science and technology, they are sweeping other values under the carpet.

He suggests that this trend is now ‘sweeping the whole world’ and that it isn’t just limited to the s0-called BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Moreover, it’s a sign that ‘we are entering a new Kali Yuga – a new Dark Age’.

But what are the root causes of the desecration of the earth? Are they political and economic? Or do they lie more in the realm of consciousness? Kumar answers without hesitation that they are political and economic: ‘Children are conditioned in our education system, between the ages of five and twenty, to believe that nothing else matters but getting a good degree and landing a well-paid job.’ Politicians, business leaders, the TV and Radio all tell us, he says, ‘It’s the economy stupid!’ But when we dig a little deeper we will find, he says, people insisting that ‘friendship, love, relationships and families’ – all spiritual values – are infinitely more important:

All spiritual values are suppressed in the capitalist system. People feel disempowered, disengaged and discouraged. They feel they have no power to change anything, they feel the need to succumb to what they are being told and, moreover, they think “I can’t beat it so I’ll join it”.

Resurgence celebrates its 45th anniversary this year

Resurgence sees the correct response as combining political engagement with a change in consciousness. Kumar quotes Gandhi: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ But political action is vital. Without it, Kumar insists, we’re just ‘escaping into an Eco-ghetto!’ According to him, we mustn’t surrender to exploitation, we must actively confront it. So he and Resurgence support direct action, whether it’s for animal rights or to protect the whales, providing only that it is non-violent.

This ethic of non-violent activism is exemplified by Kumar’s choice of three of his heroes.  These are: 1) The Kenyan founder of the Green Belt Movement Wangari Maathai, who was ‘the first person to win a Nobel Prize for planting trees’, 2) Czech writer and politician Vaclav Havel, ‘who showed that the power of imagination and non-violence is stronger than all the weapons put together, including nuclear weapons’, and 3) Burmese campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose ‘spirit and resilience are wonderful’.

‘What’s to be done?’ is still a pertinent question today. Kumar’s and Resurgence’s reply is twofold:

Firstly we need to change the institutional structure of society by embracing Small is Beautiful. Capitalism has become too big. We have big cities, big hospitals, big schools, big companies and big banks. Everything is too big; this undermines the human spirit, human imagination and human creativity … if we want human values everything needs to be on a human scale.

Kumar believes that he and Resurgence have been ‘the one voice upholding this view for forty-five years!’

However we also need a change in philosophy regarding our relationship with Nature. Humans have believed that they are superior to Nature – that it is there to serve us. But Nature has intrinsic worth … we need a relationship of mutuality not of dominance.

So what about the future of our Civilization? When asked what he thought of Western Civilization, Gandhi famously replied, ‘It would be a good idea.’  Kumar too thinks ‘we’re not civilized, we’ve been behaving badly, and we need to learn to behave and to live in harmony’.  Yet we can’t go back to a pre-industrial age, that’s a fantasy, rather we need to ‘create a post-industrial age; an age where nature, science and technology are in balance with the human spirit’.

E. F. Schumacher once commented: ‘In the name of Gross National Product, modern man will resort to any degree of technological violence and human degradation.’ For forty-five years the magazine he co-founded, Resurgence, has tried to counter this state of affairs. Long may it continue to do so!