John Buell

Earth Day and the Future of the Commons

Scholars often date the beginning of the modern environmental movement from the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The reaction to the book is credited with the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. And Earth Day. But those outcomes have done little to stem the flood of over 80,000 chemicals in our environment now, most untested for human and ecological health.

Silent Spring’s potential effect was later eclipsed by the publication of another pivotal work that resonated with other themes that assumed prominence in the late sixties and early seventies. The US environmental movement has always been cross class and has had an ambivalent relationship both to economic inequality and the sanctity of the free market. Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons seemed to speak to concerns about environmental sustainability all the while celebrating the magic of the market. Its tough-minded rhetoric and the no nonsense demeanor of its proponents resonated with the aggressive sensibility of an emerging corporate conservatism. Hardin’s rhetorical skill helped further unleash the very destructive forces Carson and many of her successors have long worried about. Part of a successful environmental movement even today requires undoing the conceptual and policy damage inflicted by Hardin’s work.

Hardin pictures a pasture open to all. A herdsmen who wants to expand his personal herd will calculate that the cost of additional grazing (reduced food for all animals, rapid soil depletion) will be divided among all, but he alone will get the benefit of having more cattle to sell.

Inevitably, “the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd.” But every “rational herdsman” will do the same thing, so the commons is soon overstocked and overgrazed to the point where it supports no animals at all.

Part of its power lay in its abstractness, its detachment from real world examples. As Ian Angus, editor of Climate and Capitalism, points out, Hardin’s work, though published in a scholarly journal, provided no examples or case studies for its central thesis. Equally significant, its conclusions follow from its premises. By presuming an isolated, profit maximizing agent, the mutually assured destruction Hardin laments, the tragedy, is assured. The world has an ample supply of such agents, but these beings hardly sprung ex nihilo. The herdsman who wants to behave as Hardin suggests requires not only a market for his cattle, but capital markets, transportation systems, and ultimately even cultural and educational systems that foster and sustain such behavior.

Unfortunately both for Hardin and for environmental politics, Hardin spent no time examining the many historical and contemporary examples of commons. A commons is not the same thing as a field or pasture that provides open access to all with no strings attached. Angus points out that what happens in real commons is self-regulation by the members of the commons itself. Members agree on limits to grazing, enforces these limits and assess the results.

The privatization as restoration for the environment played especially well among middle class members of the environmental community. They had been less exposed to the economic deprivations and environmental assaults brought on by either gentrification or the citing of coal, chemical, or nuclear plants in their back yard.

Today, despite the fact that even Hardin himself admitted many of the errors of his ways, the Tragedy of the Commons lives on as a defense of privatization schemes of everything from water systems to municipal parking. And though not only abusing scarce resources these schemes have strengthened the hand of well placed elites exacerbated economic inequality and reinforced political cynicism.

The Tragedy of the Commons may be thought of as part of what economic historian Philip Mirowski terms a neoliberal thought collective. The first stage of the neoliberal response to the deprivations of a pure market economy is to deny, a function well performed by especially those land grant universities heavily dependent on agribusiness and petrochemical dollars. Such groups led the charge against Carson. Once absolute denial is no longer possible, the next stage is to translate these concerns into further opportunities for market growth and corporate expansion. Thus as cancer rates continue unabated and soil quality deteriorates, big pharma promises new cancer cures and chemical companies offer genetically modified seeds for key crops. And Garrett Hardin and his followers promise privatization as a means of resource protection.

A healthy and sustainable environmental politics needs not merely to resist privatization but to restore modern versions of the commons. The shape that management systems will take for a water collective in rural India will vary from parking systems in Chicago. The challenges will be even greater for such international commons as the Oceans or global climate. Yet transnational efforts to build such collaborative efforts across ethnicities and religious and moral beliefs are an opportunity as well as a challenge. Corporate neoliberalism has risen to this challenge and environmental activists can and must do the same.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2015

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