Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The tragedy of the tragedy of commons

(what is tragic with this forest?)

The expression “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin 1968) was coined by the ecologist Garret Hardin (1915-2003) to describe that common resources need to be protected and monitored to be protected from over-exploitation. Many, in particular neo-liberals have used his article, or at least the catchy phrase to argue that common resources should be privatised because that would mean that they will be taken care of; sustainability would be guaranteed through the profit interest of the individual. It has also been used against common management or public management of resources. Hardin himself clarified in a later article 2003 that what is needed is that the commons are managed: "A 'managed commons' describes either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise. Either one may work; either one may fail: 'The devil is in the details.' But with an unmanaged commons, you can forget about the devil: As overuse of resources reduces carrying capacity, ruin is inevitable." He also stated that:

The more the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment, the more freedoms must be given up. As cities grow, the freedom to park is restricted by the number of parking meters or fee-charging garages. Traffic is rigidly controlled. On the global scale, nations are abandoning not only the freedom of the seas, but the freedom of the atmosphere, which acts as a common sink for aerial garbage. Yet to come are many other restrictions as the world's population continues to grow. (Hardin 2003)[1]

Very seldom do we hear those that babble about the tragedy of the commons quote this statement.

Privatization of commons played a big role for the development of capitalism in England. It is worth noting that there is no indication of that those commons, before they were privatized, represented any tragedy, i.e. that they were mismanaged in any way. They were common in order to protect them from over-use rather than the opposite (Montgomery 2007). On the Solomon Islands, the white beech is a rare tree essential for constructions of canoes. When someone knows they will need a new canoe in the future, they mark a young tree to inform the others of its future use, and still ask the chief for permission before finally cutting it (Satoyama 2010). The same is reported from many other places: ”well-organized village communities were frequently in a better position to care for the common forest in keeping with their needs than money-hungry lords who wished to fill their coffers with the forest and who often did not even know the woods they were supposedly protecting”. It was precisely the division of the commons that was often followed by the cutting of the forest (Radkau 2008). Our society institutions are also a kind of commons, created by ourselves. Last decades have experienced a wide-spread battle over how to manage resources like schools, hospitals, utilities, postal service and water works just to mention a few.

Experiences of how to manage common resources point in different directions and we should not jump into conclusions how they should be managed in order not to be destroyed. There are other options than privatization and state control; many common resources, probably most, have been managed by local communities, and it is rather recent that they have been either privatised or taken over by the state. Elinor Ostrom, 2009 Nobel Laureate in economy, has shown how cooperation in the management of common resources is the rule rather than an exception (Ostrom 2009). What is of critical importance is that the users have real say in the arrangements. This is hardly anything new; Kropotkin said the same almost 150 years earlier. For sure there will still be no guarantee that the management will be perfect, people can act egoistically or foolishly both as individual owners and members of a community. The difference is that in a community, the majority must act egoistically and foolishly for it to dominate.

(More extracts from Garden Earth)

[1] My references to Hardin here should not be seen as an endorsement of his ethics regarding how to behave in an overstretched world, some of which I find questionable to say the least.

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