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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.

A summary and examination of the environmental crisis and its causes, and how we think that the problems can be solved.

Originally Published at - October 9, 2006

The Earth is facing an environmental crisis on a scale unprecedented in human history. This environmental crisis is already responsible for high levels of human suffering. If the crisis continues to develop at its current rate, the ultimate result will be the extinction of human life on the planet.

We call for action to end the environmental crisis because of the threat it poses to humankind, and because we recognise that nature and the environment have value in their own terms.

The main environmental problems include:

Air pollution: creates global warming (or climate change): a general increase in planetary temperatures that will severely disrupt weather patterns causing mass floods, droughts, chaotic climate fluctuations and disease killing millions; destroys the ozone layer that filters out dangerous cancer-causing rays from the sun; turns rain water into acid that destroys plant and animal life. It also causes respiratory and other diseases amongst humans which kills over 30,000 people a year in the UK1.

Solid waste: the sea and the land environments are poisoned by the dumping of dangerous industrial wastes (such as mercury and nuclear waste); the use of materials that nature cannot break down in packaging and in other products, particularly disposable products, have turned many parts of the world into large rubbish dumps. This is also a waste of finite resources and it poisons and injures people.

Soil erosion: this takes place in both the West and the so-called “developing” world, and is the result of factors such the (mis-)use of chemical fertilisers, dangerous pesticides etc., as well as inappropriate land use, land overuse, and the felling of trees. For these reasons, soil is eroded at a rate faster than that at which it is being produced which contributes to rural poverty2

Extinction: plants and animals are being made extinct at a faster rate than any time since the dinosaurs died out, 60 million years ago. This results in the loss of many species, and undermines the eco-sphere on which all life depends.

The Environmental Crisis

By the Workers' Solidarity Federation - January 1, 2005

The world is facing a very serious environmental crisis. Key environmental problems include air pollution, the destruction of the ozone layer, vast quantities of toxic waste, massive levels of soil erosion, the possible exhaustion of key natural resources such as oil and coal, and the extinction of plants and animals on a scale not seen since the death of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago. We think that this crisis is likely to have catastrophic effects in the future. Even today, the negative effects of the crisis are evident in the form of growing deserts, increased rates of cancer, and the loss of plant species which could hold out cures for diseases for diseases such as AIDS etc.

What caused the crisis?

We disagree with those environmentalists who blame the crisis on modern machine production. Many dangerous, environmentally destructive technologies and substances (for example, coal power stations, non-degradable plastics which do not rot in the ground) can be replaced with safer and sustainable industrial technologies (for example, solar technology, starch-based plastics). We think that modern forms of production have many potential advantages over small-scale craft production. Such as greatly increasing the number of essential products like bricks produced, and freeing people from unpleasant toil. We also disagree with the argument that says that workers and peasants cause the crisis by consuming “too many” resources. Most goods consumed in the world are consumed by the middle class and ruling class.

Instead, the real blame for the environmental crisis must be laid at the door of capitalism and the State. These structures create massive levels of inequality which are responsible for much ecological devastation. How? The accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few is associated with excessive and unjustifiable high levels of consumption by the ruling elite. The poverty caused by the system also creates environmental problems. For example, by forcing the poor to cut down trees for firewood, exhaust the tiny bits of farm land that they own in a desperate attempt to provide food, pollute rivers because they lack proper plumbing facilities etc.

Anarchism and Environmental Survival (Graham Pucrhase)

By Graham Pucrhase - See Sharp Press, 1994

As a result of the environmental crisis, the once-unshakable belief that the human species should dominate nature is being challenged on all sides. "Survival" has come to mean something more complex than the simplistic notion of "survival of the fittest" or the right of dominance by a "superior" species. Increasing numbers of people are coming to see that regional and planetary environmental health, and human survival itself, depend upon a respectful approach to nature and to non-human life forms. We now know that healthy soils, animals, forests, grasslands and river systems are biological necessities for human survival. Ecological science further tells us that genetic and species diversity, not homogeneity, ensures the health and stability of ecosystems, and that the health and stability of the Karth itself can be no greater than that of its combined ecological regions. Our contemporary understanding of survival, then, and the means necessary to its realization, is a far cry from the individualistic struggle for existence—"Nature red in tooth and claw"—once depicted in elementary biology texts. Human survival depends not upon competition with other species (and within our own), but rather upon the adoption of cooperative and nurturant ways of life—a sustainable course of co-evolution with all living things.

At the same time, people are increasingly looking for nongovernmental ways to solve pressing social and environmental problems. They realize that it is everyone’s responsibility to create a greener, healthier, and more sustainable future for their families and communities. People are beginning to plant trees in suburban "green belts," to campaign against the pollution of local rivers, and to take the time to appreciate the wildlife in their regions. They notice that the massive and imperialistic military and economic ventures of nation states and multinational corporations are more often than not harmful to the regions in which they are imposed. Corporate capitalism, from Tokyo to Berlin seems determined to cover the delicate ecoregions of our living planet with a universal landscape of asphalt highways, golf courses, shopping malls, and theme parks. People everywhere are realizing that our survival is dependent upon environmental stability, and that the pathological interests of governments and multinational corporations pose the single biggest threat to the health of the Earth.

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The General Strike (Ralph Chaplin)

Introduction - (from the 1985 republication of this pamphlet):

Thousands of thoughtful and class-conscious workers in years past have looked to the General Strike for deliverance from wage slavery. Today their hopes are stronger than ever. Their number has been increased with additional thousands who are confident that the General Strike, and the General Strike alone, can save Humanity from the torture and degradation of the continuation of capitalism and the misery and privation of its recurrent wars and depressions.

The General Strike is the child of the Labor Movement. It is Labor's natural reaction to a system of society based upon the private ownership of the machinery of production. It is Labor's ultimate attitude in the class struggle. It is Labor's answer to the problem of economic disorganization.

Logically enough the General Strike has become the rallying-cry of millions of persons the world over who favor it simply because they do not wish to see the highly industrialized modern world sink into chaos, and human society sink to the level of savage survival.

The idea of the General Strike is here to stay. It came into being with the perfection of the machine process and the centralization of control which made it possible. And it will remain as a constant challenge to capitalism as long as the machinery of production is operated for profit instead of for use.

What is the General Strike?

When Ralph Chaplin wrote this pamphlet in 1933, fascism was on the march in Europe and America. He saw the general strike not just as a broad work stoppage, but rather as the occupation of industry by the workers themselves. It was his belief then that only worker control of industry could combat fascist repression and insure world peace.

 This conception of the general strike influenced the stay-in strikes of the '30s here and was modified by Japanese workers after World War II when they occupied the industries to make sure they were kept running. More recently, in the 1980s, workers in Bolivia, the Phillipines, Poland and South Africa have militantly taken up the tactic. It remains to be applied on a mass level once and for all to do away with the dangerous foolishness of private or State ownership of production. It is an idea both revolutionary and constructive, with a tremendous future.

Current IWW literature urges that workers the world over need to reach an understanding among ourselves as to what we will make, where we will ship it, and how we will distribute it in order to make optimal use of our skills and Earth's productive resources without either raping the Earth or making slaves of her people.

The Centralia Conspiracy (Ralph Chaplin)

By Ralph Chaplin - 1919

Note to readers:  the web version of this document omits the many images (due to the images' poor contrast and resolution) and their descriptive captions, which--although informative--are also covered in the general narrative.  For the complete document, including images and captions, please download this PDF Version of the document.

This document has been subdivided to allow for quicker load times and more digestable reading.  The following divisions are not part of the original document.

Lord Byrons Speech in Defense of the Luddites

Orginially published at The Luddites at 200

This speech was given by Lord Byron in the debate in the House of Lords on the 1812 Frame Breaking Act. A week later, in a letter to a friend Byron wrote, “I spoke very violent sentences with a sort of modest impudence, abused everything and everybody, put the Lord Chancellor very much out of humour, and if I may believe what I hear, have not lost any character in the experiment”.

My Lords, The subject now submitted to your Lordships, for the first time, though new to the House, is, by no means, new to the country. I believe it had occupied the serious thoughts of all descriptions of persons long before its introduction to the notice of that Legislature whose interference alone could be of real service. As a person in some degree connected with the suffering county, though a stranger, not only to this House in general, but to almost every individual whose attention I presume to solicit, I must claim some portion of your Lordships' indulgence, whilst I offer a few observations on a question in which I confess myself deeply interested.

To enter into any detail of these riots would be superfluous; the House is already aware that every outrage short of actual bloodshed has been perpetrated, and that the proprietors of the frames obnoxious to the rioters, and all persons supposed to be connected with them, have been liable to insult and violence. During the short time I recently passed in Notts, not twelve hours elapsed without some fresh act of violence; and, on the day I left the county, I was informed that forty frames had been broken the preceding evening as usual, without resistance and without detection.

Such was then the state of that county, and such I have reason to believe it to be at this moment. But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalelled distress. The perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large and once honest and industrious body of the people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community. At the time to which I allude, the town and county were burdened with large detachments of the military; the police was in motion, the magistrates assembled, yet all these movements, civil and military had led to—nothing. Not a single instance had occurred of the apprehension of any real delinquent actually taken in the fact, against whom there existed legal evidence sufficient for conviction. But the police, however useless, were by no means idle: several notorious delinquents had been detected; men liable to conviction, on the clearest evidence, of the capital crime of poverty; men, who had been nefariously guilty of lawfully begetting several children, whom, thanks to the times!—they were unable to maintain.

Considerable injury has been done to the proprietors of the improved frames. These machines were to them an advantage, inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmen, who were left in consequence to starve. By the adoption of one species of frame in particular, one man performed the work of many, and the superfluous labourers were thrown out of employment.

Yet it is to be observed, that the work thus executed was inferior in quality, not marketable at home, and merely hurried over with a view to exportation. It was called, in the cant of the trade, by the name of Spider-work. The rejected workmen, in the blindness of their ignorance, instead of rejoicing at these improvements in arts so beneficial to mankind, conceived themselves to be sacrificed to improvements in mechanism. In the foolishness of their hearts, they imagined that the maintenance and well doing of the industrious poor, were objects of greater consequence than the enrichment of a few individuals by any improvement in the implements of trade which threw the workmen out of employment, and rendered the labourer unworthy of his hire. And, it must be confessed, that although the adoption of the enlarged machinery, in that state of our commerce which the country once boasted, might have been beneficial to the master without being detrimental to the servant; yet, in the present situation of our manufactures, rotting in warehouses without a prospect of exportation, with the demand for work and workmen equally diminished, frames of this construction tend materially to aggravate the distresses and discontents of the disappointed sufferers. But the real cause of these distresses, and consequent disturbances, lies deeper.


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