This year, the commons movement celebrates the 50th anniversary of the term ‘tragedy of the commons’. The man who came up with it, Gareth Hardin, has been very influential in all sorts of policy circles, even though his science was basically nonsense. Ever since the tragedy of the commons was ‘invented’, commoners have been forced to explain why it is wrong, even after Ostrom’s definitive reckoning with it in the 1990s.
There is a bitter irony in the story of Hardin and how his ideas relate to the commons movement in a larger political context. Unfortunately, that side of the story has never been widely discussed. Yet today, the personal history of Hardin is more relevant than ever.
Recently, Matto Mildenberger (Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara) wrote a lengthy thread about this very topic on Twitter, which he later also published as an op-ed in the Scientific American. With Matto’s permission, we turned his words into a blog post. This story is an important part of the foundational history of the commons movement, so we are very happy to finally shine a light on it.
The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons:
The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong
By Matto Mildenberger
There is something I’ve been meaning to say about The Tragedy of the Commons for a long time. Bear with me for a small rant on why our embrace of Hardin is a stain on environmentalism. Bottom line: 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, and 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, by the way. 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 really? That’s much less clear. As Susan Cox points out, British commons were exclusive to a defined set of individuals and 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 a purely academic argument, if not for the intellectual roots of Hardin’s metaphor and thinking – roots that too few environmentalists acknowledge: Hardin wasn’t making an informed scientific case. Instead, he was using concerns about environmental scarcity to justify racial discrimination.
Hardin wasn’t a social scientist or an expert on social organization. Instead, he was a Human Ecology professor 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.
Hardin came up with a philosophy he called lifeboat ethics, describing why the rich must throw poor people overboard to keep their own boat above water (read The Case Against Helping The Poor at your own risk). These were not mere words on paper. Hardin lobbied Congress against sending food aid to poor nations, because he believed their populations were threatening Earth’s “carrying capacity.”
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 that is 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:
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:
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.
This blog was adapted from a Twitter-rant. Those tweets also resulted in a longer op-ed published in the Scientific American. Make sure to read it, it is really good. We want to thank Matto Mildenberger for shining light on this important topic and for allowing us to publish his words. Make sure to follow him on Twitter. Do you want to continue this discussion or share your thoughts? Join the conversation with us on Twitter or send us a response at firstname.lastname@example.org.