The Racist, Neoliberal Roots of Garrett Hardin's 'Tragedy of the Commons'
Updated: May 11
Back in the early 80's as a young philosophy student, I read an article by the ecologist/ biologist Garrett Hardin entitledThe Tragedy of the Commons. It was given to our class as a possible topic for a philosophy debate.
Hardin's dark Hobbesian thesis was that left to our own devices we humans would act in a completely self-interested way, competing with each other for scarce resources until the resources ran out. To put this in starker terms, by nature, human communities are doomed to collapse since they invariably neglect the well-being of the whole for the sake of individual gain. Since unconditional human freedom inevitably ends in a tragic 'war of all against all' it is necessary, Hardin argued, to curtail such freedom by either imposing private property rights or alternatively give over total control to a central government—in other words, either adopt the present neoliberal capitalist economy or opt for totalitarian government.
Even back then I thought Hardin's argument was the most asinine piece of right-wing intellectual garbage I had ever read. It was both theoretically unsound and factually/historically inaccurate. However, I was in the minority—many students in philosophy, science, and economics thought Hardin was unquestionably right since his paper was shared and cited by thousands of academics around the world. Despite this, I held my ground…and lost the debate! Fast forward 40 odd years later and I can say with some measure of confidence (and a sense of vindication!) that my initial interpretation of Hardin as a fascist capitalist apologist was not only right but my suspicion that his population and eugenics ideas were racist has been acknowledged by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The latter have designated Hardin as a white nationalist, "whose publications were frank in their racism and quasi-fascist ethnonationalism".
Aside from the issue of racism, however, Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons thesis is plainly wrong—and this has been shown over and over again in historical and current empirical studies of people working under the principles of cooperative commons, or in what are sometimes referred to as 'intentional communities' where resources--farmlands, water, forests--are preserved and shared. It is quite true that this takes a good deal of work and organization--not to mention a commitment to democratic processes of decision-making and resolution of problems and disagreements. But it has proven successful time and again. One of the most reliable researchers in this area was Elinor Ostrum, the first woman to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
Ostrum also thought Hardin’s fear-mongering thesis was empirically and historically unfounded. Her studies regarding co-operative collective action around the world demonstrate again and again that global commons can be sustained through community networks and institutions. Indeed, what becomes abundantly clear is that Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons was not science but rather junk science posing as real science, the intention of which was to justify rampant privatization of natural resources and defend a program of population control based on racial discrimination. Ostrum entirely rejected Hardin's analysis and his proposed solutions. She worked assiduously for years to empirically defend an entirely opposite thesis: that human beings are not essentially selfish but rather cooperative and collaborative beings.
Ostrum summarized eight principles for managing a cooperative commons that are still used today by many start-up intentional communities and commons projects around the world:
1. Define clear group boundaries.
2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.
The reality is that left to their own devices most people are precisely not the sort of selfish and grasping individuals’ that charlatans like Hardin and Ayn Rand claim them to be. Instead, most people want to avoid conflict, wish to live peaceably with others, and are quite willing to cooperate, collaborate and share the bounty of goods their community provides. Indigenous peoples thrived for thousands of years in what we today call intentional communities.
It is only with the rise and dominance of a despicable capitalist, colonialist system that selfishness and greed have become normalized--a system where competition and hoarding wealth are glorified, and where colonizing the earth's resources for private profit is legitimated by neoliberal governments. It is quite true that if not resisted and rebelled against this system will pollute the commons and inevitably leave the planet lifeless. However, what we have discovered in the wake of today’s neoliberal disaster capitalism is that intentional cooperative communities and public commons are not only possible but are multiplying around the world. They are the future.
More crucially, these cooperative efforts testify to the fact that there can be no environmental sustainability without environmental justice.