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Elinor Ostrom

Capitalism is the Climate Crisis; Our Hope is Each Other

By Patrick O’Donoghue -  First of May Anarchist Alliance, November 6, 2018

The results are in: The planet is getting strangled and we’re running out of time.

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a normally conservative and cautious body, warns that on our current trajectory the world is set to warm by a global average of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) by 2040, and that carbon emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 and go carbon neutral by 2050 if we want to avoid worse warming. Even with these changes, we are staring down the barrel of climate chaos– sea level rise, droughts, and severe weather are set to disrupt agriculture and the economy on a global scale, forcing the immense displacement of people and bringing with it conflict over resources and borders. These effects of warming are already hitting us, and are only set to get worse without a thorough restructuring not just of our energy system, but of our economy.  

From where we stand now, this seems almost impossible, after decades of inaction by politicians, financed by fossil fuel companies that knew full well the truth about climate change years before it became public knowledge. The 2015 Paris Climate Accords saw the world’s powers agree to reduce emissions enough to limit the warming to 2 degrees Celsius, none of the signatories of that treaty are currently on track to reduce their emissions to the agreed levels. Carbon in the atmosphere is over 400 parts per million, up from 280 parts per million at the dawn of the industrial revolution, and well over the 350 parts per million that NASA climatologist James Hansen has described as the safe upper operating limit for the climate.

The report confirms once more what we’ve known for decades– that our current relationship with the planet we live on is unsustainable, and that without an immense restructuring of society, we will see the unraveling and degradation of the ecosystems that sustain our life. We should be dead clear here that this is a political, economic issue, and not simply “humanity” or “civilization”. It’s capitalism.

Tragedy of the Commons Versus Common Ownership

By A Johnston - Socialism or Your Money Back, May 3, 2011

In 1968 an American biologist Garrett Hardin invented a parable to explain why, in his view, common ownership was no solution to the environmental crisis and why in fact it would make matters worse. This was sweet music to the defenders of capitalist ownership of the means of producing wealth, and Hardin’s parable was soon incorporated into the arsenal of anti-socialist arguments.

Called "The tragedy of the commons", his parable went like this: Picture a pasture open to all, assume its a pasture to which all herdsmen have free access to graze their cattle. In these circumstances, it is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long desired goal of social stability becomes a reality At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximise his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.

  • 1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
  • 2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. In the end, its carrying capacity would be exceeded, resulting in environmental degradation. Ruin is the destination towards which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in the commons bring ruin to all.

Hardin's solution to this tragedy of the commons is "mutual coercion". An appeal to conscience, he argues, is altogether futile. Mutual coercion can be effected through, as it were, enclosing the commons and instituting a system of private property which will enforce a sense of responsibility among herdsmen as to the appropriate number of cattle their land can provide for without resulting in overgrazing. Since they cannot encroach on land owned by other herdsmen, the consequences of keeping too many cattle will be exclusively borne by them. This knowledge will therefore deter them from acting irresponsibly in the first place. Governments drew from Hardin’s theorising was that in existing cases where producers had rights of access to a “common-pool resource” the solution was either to privatise the resource or to subject the producers to outside control via quotas, fines and other restrictions.

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