"The Tragedy of the Commons": how ecofascism was smuggled into mainstream thought

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/10/01/grant-hardin-fascist.html


“helping poor people just encourages them to have more babies they can’t afford”

… is straight up wrong. Poor people have more kids than rich people; IIRC there’s a fairly straightforward inverse relationship between standard of living and number of children. Raise up the poor so they’re not struggling to survive and watch the birth rate drop.


The main error of the Tragedy of the Commons is that it pushes the idea that basic entropy, over-use and exploitation, only significantly happen to shared endeavours, and not private ones.

It’s a world without abandoned factories and malls, and mismanaged waste and planned obsolescence.


notionally, it describes how property that is held in common is prone to overuse and exhaustion, while privatization creates an owner who has an incentive to serve as a wise steward over the resource.

I’m sorry, but this notion of what the TotC teaches is as wrong now as it was when Cory put it out there six months ago.

The Tragedy of the Commons deals with unmanaged public resources, and recognizes that when there is no effective management of those common interests, private interests will often selfishly exploit them to everyone’s detriment.

It’s an argument for regulation of public resources, not privatization.


Trump knows water levels are rising because it’s affected his golf courses and he’s had to make changes to them. Mass immigration from displacement might actually be in the back of his mind when he talks about the stupid wall.

I think that many of us assumed that when that happened, we’d see a surge of support for climate justice, the diversion of resources from wealth extraction for the super-rich to climate remediation and defense centered on the public good. But that expectation overestimated the extent to which climate denial was motivated by mere greed.

One of the best counters to the moldy old right-wing phrenologists’ attempts to re-package their scientific racism and sell it to young environmentalists is the strong presence of indigenous peoples in the international climate justice movement. They’ll slap down the racist entryists every time.

True. Cory needed to zero in more on the kind of racist, exclusionary and exterminationist regulation that Hardin would have supported to keep the commons productive and pure. That’s the real danger being discussed when we talk about eco-fascism.


I enjoy Cory’s writing, but it’s frustrating to read something about Hardin that gets his name wrong (It’s Garrett, not Grant or Grand), and ignores Elinor Ostrom’s work. As Scientific American put it:

Elinor Ostrom and colleagues around the world engaged in rigorous, interdisciplinary social science to diagnose social dilemmas and understand commons as a mode of governing access to and use of shared resources. They focused mostly on natural resources. In 2009, Ostrom, along with Oliver E. Williamson, shared the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (colloquially known as the Nobel Prize in Economics), in large part for demonstrating how communities can effectively govern themselves and their shared resources.

I recognize that this is slightly separate from Cory’s point, which I think is that we should view the “Tragedy of the Commons” with skepticism because its author was a fascist, but that’s not the only reason we should view it with skepticism.


OK, I’m just going to ask here: how many people have heard this version of the Tragedy of the Commons?

Because in my economics classes, the tragedy of the commons was that capitalists ruined everyone else’s lives by taking advantage of commons resources for their own profit while eternalizing costs (such as negative environmental issues) by pushing those costs to other people. The lesson from the tragedy of the commons (if you’re not a psychopathic user) is to have laws to force unethical people to behave in ways that are not detrimental to society.

The example I remember is a town commons, where people are allowed to graze a cow or two to supply their family with milk. The practice has always been a cow or two is OK, anything more and you need your own field; but it was never really passed into law. Since it isn’t actually a law, someone grazes 300 head of cow on the field, making it so that everyone’s cows don’t have enough grass to survive. So the townspeople have to buy their milk from the evil person who grazed all the cows and made it so the commons was no longer able to support bovine life.

Is there really teachers teaching this fucked up, counter-world example of tragedy of the commons, or did some fuckwit come up with this Ann Rand-grade bullshit, name it the Tragedy of the Commons ignoring the real, established, 18th century economic principle, and bandwagon mis-remembered economics classes and syllabuses by gass lighting people that this is what they were teaching?


A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions(2).

Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that around one sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning Rs30,000 or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.

We know how to solve high birth rate; easy access to healthcare, education and empowering women. Instead we get a load of people blaming the poors (who just happen to mostly be brown) because it is easier.

It’s not like population is the immediate threat anyway. Swapping one distasteful tactic for another, you would have more useful effect by guillotining the rich list than by stopping the billion poorest from having children.

And because I will end up mentioning them at some point.


This is exactly right. Thank you.

Helping the poor with access to contraceptives helps them have fewer children, which allows them to develop more wealth… But the right wing is against that.

Making education more accessible (or just not shutting down schools in poor neighborhoods) also would help, but everyone across the political spectrum seems to be against that. One presumes because redirecting funding from rich schools (from rich families) to poor schools proves to be political suicide.


I Agree 100% with you.

In a nutshell, poor people (and people with less access to health care) have more children because more of them end up dead; rich people have fewer children (on average) because a rich person loosing a child is much more rare.

I for one will be interested in seeing what the anti-vax movement does to birth rates. It’s an unethical, grotesque experiment as to what birthrate will do when people start seeing their children dying in droves for weakly held idiotic beliefs…


Common interests like the free market. (Which has never really been free in the way that the wankertarian’s imaginary gilded age was).


As a welcome counterpoint to Malthusian ecofascism, I recommend “Empty Planet” by Bricker an Ibbitson

You can go on. Making public health a funding priority means that you have lower infant mortality, which in turn means people have fewer kids. Properly funding public programmes for the elderly means fewer people having a bunch of kids to support them in old age.*

If this was simply about financial greed, conservatives would have a lot more trouble blinding themselves to these facts; that they still can is evidence that racism and sexism are strong factors in their philosophy as well.

[* there’s also the fact that it’s cheaper to raise a child in poverty than it is to raise one in a middle-class or higher lifestyle – the latter aren’t wearing hand-me-downs, and the former aren’t being given everything they ask for at Christmas]


Women’s rights are important too. Men tend to want more children since they do less work caring for them anyway.


I remember seeing Hardin’s article being reprinted and discussed in the 80’s, it seemed like it was everywhere. And no one on the left -that I could find- took issue with the private property implications, I took it to mean we should embrace tougher public protections. Maybe socialism hadn’t been so thoroughly demonized back then.

It seems really intuitive to me, to consider racism as just another lazy thinking method of getting us all in trouble. “Part of this poisonous breakfast”. Racism inspired and informed the environmental devastation that got us to this point in the first place. If native americans were considered people at the time this place belonged to them, it would have been umnthinkable to have done such damage to their home.


You can make mostly-white regions like North America and Europe as “green” as you want, without appearing ecofascist, but you’ll still have a massive climate crisis because of India and China. Places where the people are not white. Places that generate the levels of pollution they do because they are supplying the regions that now claim they are green.

So how do you then fix those regions?

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I think Murray Bookchin did, but I can’t find the source (The Ecology of Freedom?)


The US is by far the largest consumer market, including of oil. Full stop. We can lead by example. We built the world we’re living in now, and it’s more than a bit hypocritical to spend decades building up a system, demanding the rest of the world go along with it, often through force and violence, and then putting the onus on the countries we forced to incorporate into the global economic system the west created to fix those problems.