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Garret Hardin

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.

Building The Commons As An Antidote To Predatory Capitalism

By - Popular Resistance, February 22, 2017

NOTE: This article initially appeared in the book “Moving Beyond Capitalism,” published in September 2016 by Ashgate Publishing Limited. The book was edited by Cliff DuRand of the Center for Global Justice. We participated in a week-long conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico during the summer of 2014. The book came out of that conference. We thought it would be appropriate to post this chapter now because we are in a renewed wave of privatization and predation. We must build resistance to it. – Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese

(Based on an article originally published in Truthout.org Sept. 4, 2013)

 “We are poised between an old world that no longer works and a new one struggling to be born. Surrounded by centralized hierarchies on the one hand and predatory markets on the other, people around the world are searching for alternatives.” David Bollier in “The Wealth of the Commons”

These are times of radical change. We are in the midst of an evolution. The old world is one of concentrated economic power that hoards wealth; that creates corrupted and hierarchical governance to serve and further concentrate wealth through exploitation of people and the planet. People are experiencing the ravages of this global neoliberal economy in which the market reigns supreme and everything is a profit center, no matter the human and environmental costs.

We are at a crossroads in the global economic order. If not stopped, the two massive “trade” agreements under negotiation at present, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (known as TAFTA), will cement this globalized neoliberal market economy through greater deregulation, profit protection and an extra-judicial trade tribunal in which corporations can sue sovereign nations if their laws interfere with profits.

There is another way. We’ve reached a tipping point in awareness of the effects of the current global economy that has erupted in a worldwide revolt as we can see in the Occupy, Arab Spring, Idle No More and Indignado movements. People are searching for alternative ways of structuring the economy and society that are empowering and more just and sustainable. Part of this work includes understanding and building the “commons,” which is the opposite of the predatory market economy.

As we will describe below, concentrated wealth is derived by taking from the commons for personal gain in an undemocratic way. We can reverse the current trend toward privatization and wealth inequality by claiming the commons and using it for mutual prosperity. The commons cannot exist without a participatory governance structure. Therefore, building the commons is a fundamental step toward real democracy.

Bollier makes the case that there is “enormous potential of the commons in conceptualizing and building a better future.” Understanding the commons gives us a vocabulary, vision and practical opportunities to create a new world in which governance builds from the bottom up and connects us from the local to the global level.

The Dangers of Reactionary Ecology

By Out of the Woods - libcom.org, June 30, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Influential metaphors for understanding the environment serve as a bridge between traditional conservatism and outright ecofascism.

We have so far introduced the ideas of thinkers we find useful, such as Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of technology, and James O’Connor’s notion of the second contradiction. Here we want to look at how ecological ideas can be deployed to support deeply reactionary politics. We will do this with a critical introduction to the oft-cited, though less often read, biologist Garrett Hardin.

The tragedy of capital

Hardin’s most famous and influential concept is the tragedy of the commons, a collective action problem posited to lead all common resources to inevitable ruin. He first set the problem out in his 1968 essay of the same name:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. (…)As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize 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?" (…)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. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.1

There are numerous lines of criticism here.2 First of all, despite being published in Science, Hardin doesn’t present any actual evidence, only a thought experiment. Subsequently, in 1990, Elinor Ostrom published ‘Governing the commons’, a work that won her a Nobel Prize in economics for showing that commons do not necessarily tend to mutual ruin.3 Hardin subsequently conceded his argument only applied to unmanaged commons rather than commons per se, significantly narrowing its scope.4 However, the tragedy of the commons is still a staple of environmental ethics and ecological economics. It is often cited uncritically in introductory climate science texts.

More importantly, Hardin’s argument presupposes the very relations it posits as the cure. Hardin assumes each herdsman seeks to keep as many cattle as possible. These herdsmen are therefore not subsistence producers, producing for their own consumption, but are producing for others. Furthermore, each of them is doing so competitively: these herdsmen are producing commodities for the market.5 These herdsmen are each rational utility-maximising agents, with no social bonds, norms, or relations with one another despite sharing a pastoral commons. Finally, for there to be a market for an ever-larger number of cattle, others elsewhere must lack access to commons from which they could provide themselves with cattle. In other words, Hardin’s commons presupposes a an isolated commons in a sea of enclosure.

So Hardin presupposes competitive production for the market under conditions of generalised commodity exchange and enclosure undertaken by rational utility-maximising agents. In other words, he presupposes the historically specific relations of capitalism, relations which were, in fact, only established following the widespread enclosure and privatisation of commons. Hardin’s tragedy would be better called the tragedy of capital, for it shows only how capitalist relations of competitive production, without limit, for the market tend to undermine the conditions of production.6 Thus Hardin’s argument is historically false, theoretically circular, and empirically dubious. It nonetheless plays an important ideological role in rationalising more privatisation, enclosure, and market competition as the solution to the problems caused by privatisation, enclosure, and market competition.7

Population is not the problem

Despite its influence on environmental economics, Hardin’s primary concern throughout his work was population growth, to counter which he promoted eugenics. His 1968 piece declared that “the freedom to breed is intolerable” and asked “how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement?” His answer was coercion:

Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment.

He cites Thomas Malthus, the 18th century moralist and Reverend, but little on contemporary demography. Malthus claimed that population would grow exponentially, while food production would only grow linearly. This would make hunger and misery permanent and insoluble features of human society, since population would always tend to outstrip available food.8 Hardin did his PhD in microbiology. Population studies of bacteria are a core part of any microbiologist’s training. Indeed, bacteria will reproduce near-exponentially, doubling in number each generation until their growth is checked by a limiting factor, such as exhaustion of nutrients.

Hardin seems to rely on Malthus’ morality tale and his microbiologist’s common sense, without bothering to check whether human populations actually grow until checked by famine. Fortunately, they do not. Today, the countries where the population is stable or declining are not ones where there is famine, and countries where there are famines often have growing populations. Furthermore, as Amartya Sen has shown, recent famines have not been caused by a lack of food, but a lack of purchasing power to buy food.9 Rather than growing exponentially until checked by famine, like bacteria, human population growth tends to follow a sigmoid (S-shaped) curve.

Human population is stable whenever the birth rate equals the death rate. If the stabilisation of population is caused by famine, it would mean the death rate rises to match the birth rate. In fact, both birth and death rates fall. Before the advent of modern medicine, birth rates and death rates were high, towns were disease-ridden population sinks, and the population was therefore predominantly young and rural. With the advent of modern understandings of disease, a series of changes lead to falling death rates, falling birth rates, urbanisation, and an aging population. This is known as the demographic transition.10

The seemingly exponential growth observed by Malthus was in fact the demographic transition between the high birth/death equilibrium to the low birth/death equilibrium. This transition seems to follow a more or less universal pattern, generating a chain of positive feedbacks once it begins.11 The most developed countries began this transition several centuries ago and are now mostly at the higher, older, urban equilibrium (population decline is even a concern in some places). Many less developed countries are not yet at the higher equilibrium, have younger, more rural populations, and are still experiencing rapid population growth. UN demographers expect the world population to stabilise somewhere in the 9 billion region.

Writing in 1798, Malthus mistook the rapid growth phase of a sigmoid curve for an exponential one. In fact, Malthus' main thrust was not to advance a theory of human ecology, but to make a political attack on the poor laws and the idea of raising workers' wages. Hardin, who reaffirmed his thesis as recently as 1998, is at least as conservative as Malthus, and either less smart or less intellectually honest. Once again, evidence for his central claim is in short supply, and in the 200 years since Malthus, much counter-evidence has accumulated.

Chapter 5 : No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!

By Steve Ongerth - From the book, Redwood Uprising: Book 1

“One man, Charles Hurwitz, is going to destroy the largest remaining block of redwoods out of sheer arrogance. Only we the people can stop him.”

—Dave Foreman, October 22, 1986.[1]

Well I come from a long, long line of tree-fallin’ men,
And this company town was here before my grandpappy settled in,
We kept enough trees a-standin’ so our kids could toe the line,
But now a big corporation come and bought us out, got us working double time…

—lyrics excerpted from Where are We Gonna Work When the Trees are Gone?, by Darryl Cherney, 1986.

On the surface, very little seemed to have changed in Scotia for its more than 800 residents, but deep down, they all knew that the future was very much uncertain. Some seemed unconcerned, such as 18 year Pacific Lumber veteran Ted Hamilton, who declared, “We’re just going on as always,” or his more recently hired coworker, millworker Keith Miller, who had been at the company less than six years and who stated, “It doesn’t bother me much.”[2] Indeed, many of the workers seemed to welcome their newfound financial prosperity. [3] However, there were at least as many workers whose assessments were quite pessimistic, including millworker Ken Hollifield, a 19 year veteran who opined, “I’m sure this place won’t be here in five to seven years.” Former millworker and then-current owner of the Rendezvous Bar in Rio Dell, George Kelley, echoed these sentiments stating, “For 2½ years they’ve got a good thing going. After that they don’t know what’s happening.” Dave Galitz dismissed the naysayers’ concerns as typical fear of change, but careful estimates of the company’s harvesting rates bore out the pessimistic assessments. In the mills and the woods, however, production had increased substantially, to the point that many were working 50 and 60 hours per week. If there was to be any organized dissent, it would be difficult to keep it together, because the workers had little time to spare.[4] There seemed to be little they could do outside of a union campaign, and the IWA had neither been inspiring nor successful in their attempt.

Deep in the woods however, the changes were readily obvious. In 1985, the old P-L had received approval from the California Department of Forestry (CDF) to selectively log 5,000 acres.[5] With John Campbell at the helm, under the new regime, the company filed a record number of timber harvest plans (THPs) immediately following the sale, and all of them were approved by the CDF. There was more than a hint of a conflict of interest in the fact that the director of the agency, Jerry Pertain, had owned stock in the old Pacific Lumber and had cashed in mightily after the merger. [6] Since the takeover, the new P-L had received approval to log 11,000 acres, 10,000 of which were old growth, and there was every indication that these timber harvests would be accomplished through clearcutting.[7] Pacific Lumber spokesmen who had boasted about the company’s formerly benign forest practices now made the dubious declaration that clearcutting was the best method for ensuring both long term economic and environmental stability.

P-L forester Robert Stephens claimed that the old rate was unsustainable anyway, declaring, “About five years ago, it became apparent that there is going to be an end to old-growth. We simply cannot operate on a 2,000 year rotation.”

Public affairs manager David Galitz repeated what would soon become the new regime’s gospel, that clearcutting had actually been in the works for some time before the hint of a merger, even though in actual fact, this was untrue.

Pacific Lumber’s logging operations which had hitherto been idyllic by comparison now outpaced those of even Louisiana-Pacific and Georgia-Pacific. They tripled their logging crews, bringing in loggers from far away who had never known the old Pacific Lumber and had no particular loyalty to the fight to prevent Hurwitz’s plunder of the old company. [8] Most of the new hires were gyppos, and there were rumblings among the old timers that the quality of logging had decreased precipitously. In John Campbell’s mind, such inefficiencies were likely to be temporary and any small losses that occurred were more than offset by the much larger short term gain. The expense to the viability of the forest, however, was never entered into the ledger.[9] One resident who lived very close to the border of Pacific Lumber’s land relayed their impressions, writing:

“I live at the end of (the) road in Fortuna. Maxxam’s Pacific Lumber logging trucks drive by our house six days a week now. (It has) never been like this in the past. Ordinarily, logging was five days a week in summer…

“From Newberg Road you can look up and see the damage they are doing to the badly eroding hills, now bare of third growth. They are logging third growth from their graveled road now. As the trucks come by, it is amazing to see how small their (logs are), like flagpoles.

“What will be the value of their property when all of the trees are gone? Are they trying to eliminate all other competition—L-P, Simpson, etc.—as their long-range goal?”[10]

Environmentalists expressed alarm and outrage at the sweeping and regressive changes that had been instituted now that Hurwitz had assumed control of Pacific Lumber. John DeWitt, executive director of Save the Redwoods League, the organization that had been instrumental in coaxing the Murphy Dynasty to adopt sustainable logging practices in the first place, expressed these fears stating, “We thought they practiced excellent forestry over the past 125 years and deplore the fact they’ll double the cut. It may result in the ultimate unemployment of those who work at Pacific Lumber.”

The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons

By Ian Angus - Climate and Capitalism, November 3, 2008

Will shared resources always be misused and overused? Is community ownership of land, forests and fisheries a guaranteed road to ecological disaster? Is privatization the only way to protect the environment and end Third World poverty? Most economists and development planners will answer “yes” — and for proof they will point to the most influential article ever written on those important questions.

The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons

By Ian Angus - Climate and Capitalism, November 3, 2008

Will shared resources always be misused and overused? Is community ownership of land, forests and fisheries a guaranteed road to ecological disaster? Is privatization the only way to protect the environment and end Third World poverty? Most economists and development planners will answer “yes” — and for proof they will point to the most influential article ever written on those important questions.

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.

What about the "Tragedy of the Commons"?

By "Anarchist Writers" - November 11, 2008

The term "Tragedy of the Commons" is a phrase which is used to describe why, according to some, commonly owned resources will be destructively overused. The term was first coined by Garret Hardin in December 1968. ["The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859, pp. 1243-1248] It quickly became popular with those arguing against any form of collective ownership or socialism and would be the basis for many arguments for privatisation.

Unsurprisingly, given its popularity with defenders of capitalism and neo-classical economists, Hardin's argument was a pure thought experiment with absolutely no empirical evidence to support it. He suggested a scenario in which commonly owned pasture was open to all local herdsmen to feed their cattle on. Hardin complemented this assumption with the standard ones of neo-classical economics, arguing that each herdsman would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons to maximise their income. This would result in overgrazing and environmental destruction as the cost of each feeding additional animals is shouldered by all who use the commons while the benefits accrue to the individual herdsman. However, what is individually rational becomes collectively irrational when each herdsman, acting in isolation, does the same thing. The net result of the individual's actions is the ending of the livelihood of every herdsman as the land becomes overused.

His article was used to justify both nationalisation and privatisation of communal resources (the former often a precursor for the latter). As state ownership fell out of favour, the lesson of this experiment in logic was as uniform as it was simple: only privatisation of common resources could ensure their efficient use and stop them being overused and destroyed. Coming as it did before the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1970s, Hardin's essay was much referenced by those seeking to privatise nationalised industries and eliminate communal institutions in tribal societies in the Third World. That these resulted in wealth being concentrated in a few hands should come as no surprise.

Needless to say, there are numerous problems with Hardin's analysis. Most fundamentally, it was a pure thought experiment and, as such, was not informed by historical or current practice. In other words, it did not reflect the reality of the commons as a social institution. The so-called "Tragedy of the Commons" was no such thing. It is actually an imposition of the "tragedy of the free-for-all" to communally owned resources (in this case, land). In reality, commons were never "free for all" resources and while the latter may see overuse and destruction the former managed to survive thousands of years. So, unfortunately for the supporters of private property who so regularly invoke the "Tragedy of the Commons", they simply show their ignorance of what true commons are. As socialist Allan Engler points out:

"Supporters of capitalism cite what they call the tragedy of the commons to explain the wanton plundering of forests, fish and waterways, but common property is not the problem. When property was held in common by tribes, clans and villages, people took no more than their share and respected the rights of others. They cared for common property and when necessary acted together to protect it against those who would damage it. Under capitalism, there is no common property. (Public property is a form of private property, property owned by the government as a corporate person.) Capitalism recognises only private property and free-for-all property. Nobody is responsible for free-for-all property until someone claims it as his own. He then has a right to do as he pleases with it, a right that is uniquely capitalist. Unlike common or personal property, capitalist property is not valued for itself or for its utility. It is valued for the revenue it produces for its owner. If the capitalist owner can maximise his revenue by liquidating it, he has the right to do that." [Apostles of Greed, pp. 58-59]

Therefore, as Colin Ward argues, "[l]ocal, popular, control is the surest way of avoiding the tragedy of the commons." [Reflected in Water, p. 20] Given that a social anarchist society is a communal, decentralised one, it will have little to fear from irrational overuse or abuse of communally owned and used resources.

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