The “Tragedy of the Commons” Is a Dubious, Right-Wing Concept

The environmental crisis isn’t the result of the “tragedy of the commons.” It’s the result of the commons’ theft and privatization for profit.

The low water level at Woodhead reservoir near Sheffield, UK, on June 30, 2023. (Anthony Devlin / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The criminals producing the current climate crisis would have us believe it’s a “tragedy of the commons” — the inevitable result of individuals pursuing their self-interest in a world of finite resources. The term was popularized by biologist Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article in Science, one of the most cited — and vociferously refuted — scientific essays of the twentieth century. Hardin maintained that environmental tragedy inevitably accompanies the public use and management of land, water, and air. But the real history of the depletion of the commons tells almost the opposite story: one of privatization, enclosure, and relentless profit seeking.

Bad History

Hardin’s discredited essay revolves around a simple parable: some herdsmen are grazing their cows on a common pasture. It goes well for a few millennia, in fact so well that each herdsman decides to graze an extra cow, figuring that the personal benefit of the extra cow outweighs the stress to the pasture. Pretty soon the grass is picked over, the cows starve, and everyone on the planet dies. But here’s the kicker: it was always what was going to happen. A shared finite resource will always succumb to overuse. “The inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest.” Tragic.

It’s been almost fifteen years since political scientist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for a life’s work demonstrating that people are indeed capable of sharing finite resources without depleting them. Yet as rapid environmental devastation forces the issue of resource management into public debate, Hardin’s influence has only grown. A eugenicist and white nationalist whose academic work on population control came paired with a very specific political agenda about which populations demanded targeting, Hardin has enjoyed a cult revival on the hard right. His rhetoric is being taken up by fossil fuel’s hired guns as they shift their defensive strategy from climate change denialism to assertions that we all share blame for warming the planet.

You can even happen upon Hardin references in what’s supposed to be the well-informed mainstream. In a recent explainer on the New York Times’ investigation into the terrifying depletion of US groundwater, for example, reporter David Leonhardt chooses to invoke Hardin’s fatalistic ecofascist fable over Ostrom’s fieldwork — much of it on the use of groundwater — that served as the basis for her celebrated eight principles for managing a commons.

Among its many other failings, Hardin’s essay is bad history. In England, where the term “commons” originates, the shared pastures where peasants grazed their herds weren’t overused but stolen, parceled off, and privatized in a much-studied historical process known as enclosure. Beginning in 1604, thousands of parliamentary enclosure bills siphoned off more than a fifth of the English countryside. The inhabitants bitterly opposed this legalized theft, and they engaged in periodic uprisings to resist it.

When I teach the introductory survey of American history, this is one of the places I begin. Most of us know that American Indian cultures have no traditional notion of exclusive, permanent land ownership, but few of my students realize that English peasants, too, were unconvinced on the matter. The customary English view was that inhabitants shared common rights to the land.

Justifying Private Ownership

The moral and legal concept of owning a resource like an English pasture or a North American forest was still under construction as the colonization of America began. The shift to privatization required an enormous literature of justification, encompassing Enlightenment classics by the likes of John Locke and the obscure 1833 lecture by English economist William Forster Lloyd from which Hardin borrowed the allegory of the commons.

Like Hardin, Lloyd didn’t actually care about environmental degradation; he cared about controlling the undesirable profusion of poor people. In his lecture, the commons example is intended as a metaphorical illustration of the iron law of wages. The herdsmen are agricultural wage laborers, and the cows are their children. If an individual laborer has more children (i.e., grazes more cows), his household can bring home more wages, but if every household does it, the labor surplus will depress wages, and they’ll all continue to languish in poverty.

Lloyd was very aware that the situation he described wasn’t some universal truth but a historical novelty. Enclosure had minted a new class of landless, dirt-poor agricultural laborers subject to the tyrannical calculus of the market. Lloyd constructed his commons analogy in an attempt to understand why workers would keep having children given these new realities, without recourse to explanations like stupidity and immorality preferred by his contemporary Thomas Malthus. In 1833, it was a hot debate. Parliament was in the process of overhauling the welfare system, gutting the customary right to relief, and instead requiring the indigent to do backbreaking labor in centralized workhouses in order to receive aid.

As historian Peter Linebaugh has pointed out, these attempts to get a theoretical and penal handle on the rural poor were a response to the mass campaign of coordinated property destruction it perpetrated in 1830. Starting in the southeast and quickly spreading throughout the country, laborers gathered by the hundreds to break threshing machines and light barns and wheelhouses on fire. They threatened middling farmers and government officials with notes demanding adequate wages and an end to mechanization, signed with the menacing pseudonym Captain Swing.

Just outside of Oxford, where Lloyd had his professorship in political economy, peasants marched through Otmoor leveling the fences, hedges, and ditches that enclosed their ancestral land.

The Tragedy of Enclosure

Surely some of the appeal of Hardin’s tragic commons myth lies in its pessimism. It’s so depressing that it must be true. We’re all doomed — resistance is futile. Inevitability excuses us from struggle. (Hardin and his wife killed themselves in 2003, citing their desire to create more room on Spaceship Earth.) But tragedy, “remorseless inevitableness,” as Hardin defines it, is an inherently ahistorical mode. There have always been contingencies, other ways history could have gone. The tragedies of the past are tragic expressly because they were never inevitable. It’s not fate, honey. It’s just capitalism.

The loss of our groundwater, clean air, wetlands, and forests are not tragedies of the commons but tragedies of enclosure, at times the very literal enclosure of our water into plastic bottles by Nestlé and Coca-Cola. When a shared resource goes missing, we should be knocking on the doors of those privatizing it for profit before strip-searching the “swarming hordes” who rely on it to live.