The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the commons
A Twitter essay by Matto Mildenberger (@mmildenberger)
Something I’ve been meaning to say about The Tragedy of the Commons. Bear with me for a small thread on why our embrace of Hardin is a stain on environmentalism: we’ve let a flawed metaphor by a racist ecologist define environmental thinking for a half century.
Hardin’s article, published in Science, turned 50 this past December. Since then, tens of millions of students have been taught its core message. Every individual seeks to exploit the commons. In doing so they unsustainably overuse our shared resources to the ruin of all.
Google Scholar gives me a current citation count of 38730 (!). Most articles on environmental politics use the phrase at some point or another. It has permeated our lexicon like few other concepts. Here is the original Science essay, btw.
(Side note: Hardin’s piece actually drew on a much earlier 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd about the dangers of overgrazing the English countryside. Worth a read for those so inclined.)
That this metaphor offers some essential insight is taken for granted. A generation of scholarship builds on its back, including in political science and economics. But does it? That’s much less clear.
As Susan Cox points out, British commons were exclusive to a defined set of individuals + this use itself was regulated. Commons as an institution worked but were undermined by other factors, including the efforts by the rich to accumulate more land
So the metaphor is not actually grounded in an empirically accurate representation of the commons. Other scholars have more strongly contested the logic of Hardin’s argument. These range from friendly amendments (Ostrom) to wholesale critiques.
This would all be an academic argument if not for the intellectual roots of Hardin’s metaphor and thinking – roots that too few environmentalists acknowledge.
Hardin wasn’t a social scientist or on an expert on social organization. Instead, he was a Human Ecology prof at UC Santa Barbara (my home institution) where he taught until his 1978 retirement. (Morbid side note: he and his wife killed themselves in a 2003 suicide pact.)
Have you read Hardin’s Science essay lately? It’s a mind-numbingly racist piece. And not in a subtle way that demands 2019 woke analysis. Spend the 20 minutes and do it. It’s an ethical mess from beginning to end.
There are headings like “Freedom to Breed is Intolerable”, under which Hardin imagines the benefits that might accrue if “children of improvident parents starve to death”, an outcome stymied (a bad thing to him), by the welfare state.
For these reasons, he campaigned against such programs as Food for Peace. A few paragraphs later: “If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” I think you get the idea.
And this is par for the course for Hardin, who was also a passionate eugenicist. Oh hey! Look who is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a known white nationalist.
Let’s quote the SPLC:
“Hardin used his status as a famous scientist and environmentalist to provide a veneer of intellectual and moral legitimacy for his underlying nativist agenda, serving on the board of directors of both the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform and the white-nationalist Social Contract Press. He also co-founded the anti-immigrant Californians for Population Stabilization and The Environmental Fund, which primarily served to lobby Congress for nativist and isolationist policies.”
SPLC has painful quotes from his later work. “Diversity is the opposite of unity, and unity is a prime requirement for national survival” (1991). “My position is that this idea of a multiethnic society is a disaster…we should restrict immigration for that reason.” (1996)
And here is another one, again as an image because, no thanks do I want my twitter history to pop up when people search these things:
And here is Hardin making an appearance in the infamous racist “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” op-ed. I could go on (and the SPLC does), but you get the idea.
Fast forward. Probably you’ve read articles on the intellectual network behind Trump’s nativist, racist demagoguery. Many mention the very influential anti-immigration activist John Tanton, and his Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
And who was on FAIR’s board, and a close friend of Tanton? Yep, Hardin.
In my mind, it’s not that Hardin WOULD HAVE been a Trumper. It’s that he WAS a Trumper before Trump was a Trumper. He helped build the entire intellectual movement Trump has since exploited.
Now, lots of awful people have left noble ideas that outlive them. But in Hardin’s case, the intellectual legacy is largely built on top of his racist, flawed Science that we still treat as gospel and uncritically assign in undergraduate courses year after year.
It is not a legacy based on empirical scholarship, but on a metaphor that doesn’t quite hold water. Not that you would know any of this from the anodyne retrospectives that have sprouted up in the last several months celebrating his article’s 50th anniversary.
Fifty years later, the environment community needs to stop ignoring this dark intellectual heritage. A movement that seeks to define a just, vibrant climate future needs to tear away the veneer, and choose what of Hardin to keep and what to discard.
We must ask: on what empirical basis do we accept his metaphor? How do we teach his metaphor? Do we contextualize its racist roots? Is it productive to the social transformation necessary to save the world from the climate crisis?
Not undertaking this honest examination will perpetuate its own (common) tragedy and make our intellectual heritage a form of unwitting support for some of the ugliest social forces at play in the world today.
Matto Mildenberger’s full essay can be found at ‘The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons”
Matto Mildenberger is an Assistant Professor of environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where Garrett Hardin worked until 1978. He provided permission to Discard Studies to republish his recent tweet thread on Garrett Hardin and the racist, xenophobic underpinnings of the tragedy of the commons.
Brinkley, Catherine. (2019). Hardin’s imagined tragedy is pig shit: A call for planning to recenter the commons. Planning Theory, 1473095218820460.
Cox, Susan. J. B. (1985). No tragedy of the commons. Environmental Ethics, 7(1), 49-61.
Fortier, Craig. (2017). Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Against, Within, and Beyond Settler Colonialism. Arp Books.
Mildenberger, Matto. (2019). The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons. Scientific American, 23 April.
Ostrom, Elinor. (2015). Governing the commons. Cambridge University Press.