One of the landmarks of the early environmental movement was the essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in 1968 by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in Science. It can be to an individual’s private advantage, he points out, to exploit common resources at the expense of others.
In the absence of other constraints, he argued, most people will take more than their share, out of greed or fear, eventually depleting the resources in question.
By the same token, those who don’t take advantage for themselves end up with less.
In a later essay, “Living on a Lifeboat,” he elaborates further: “Under a system of private property the man (or group of men) who own property recognize their responsibility to care for it, for if they don’t they will eventually suffer.
“A farmer, for instance, if he is intelligent, will allow no more cattle in a pasture than its carrying capacity justifies. If he overloads the pasture, weeds take over, erosion sets in, and the owner loses in the long run.
“But if a pasture is run as a commons, open to all, the right of each to use it is not matched by an operational responsibility to take care of it. It is no use asking independent herdsmen in a commons to act responsibly, for they dare not.
“The considerate herdsman who refrains from overloading the commons suffers more than a selfish one who says his needs are greater.”
Hardin highlights the disconnect in an open, unregulated commons between “operational responsibility” and the preservation of common resources. He insists that “idealism” – some form of restraint and self-sacrifice for the greater good –doesn’t help in this situation.
The only way to guarantee “operational responsibility,” Hardin argues, is if your survival depends on your owning and maintaining the resources you need. This means not just owning some personal possessions, but owning, as your private property, a productive enterprise providing goods and services on which your living depends. It means being in business for yourself.
You might be a simple herdsman, as Hardin pictures it, or a farmer, or any other independent business person. But you have to be small enough so that the success or failure of the enterprise hinge on the decisions you make.
There was a time in American history, before the rise of corporations after the Civil War, when the vast majority of people were small independent business owners of the type Hardin describes. Most were farmers, but there were also artisans, tradesmen, manufacturers, shopkeepers, wholesalers, teamsters, ship owners, undertakers, lawyers, doctors and many others.
These small independent business owners were the heart of the pre-corporate economy. They were obliged by circumstances to ensure the preservation of the raw materials they needed to continue in business.
In what was still a low tech, agricultural society, this meant having to follow a natural ecological way of life, which put limits on despoiling the land, water, and air.
It wasn’t all good, of course – forests were clear cut by farmers, paper mills and tanneries polluted streams, wood and coal fires polluted the air, etc. – but it remained largely within the power of small independent producers to change their behavior under such circumstances.
Today, however, independent business owners comprise a small and declining – even endangered – part of the population. Most of the economic ownership, once widely distributed, has been steadily consolidated into fewer and fewer hands – mostly in large corporations.
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In addition, the vast majority of people today are wage laborers, working for somebody else. They are not “operationally responsible” for the success of the enterprises that employ them.
No wonder most people feel powerless in the face of the political and economic problems we face today: They have been relieved of any effective “operational responsibility.”
Hardin drew a simple picture of herdsmen using a pasture, but we can imagine as well the large corporations roaming the earth and consuming its resources as if it were one big pasture. In an increasingly deregulated world, there is no effective check on corporate behavior.
This is the tragedy of the commons writ large. Each corporation, bound by the profit motive, has no choice but to act selfishly to maximize its private advantage in exploiting whatever resources it can command. Otherwise, it will be overtaken and consumed by the competition.
The personal survival of those running corporations – CEOs, top executives, and boards of directors – no longer depends on the survival of the corporation. They can skim off short-term profits and make money from inflated salaries, stock buy-backs, golden parachutes, and even bankruptcy.
Corporations are not too big to fail, but if they fail, it is the rank and file wage-earners who suffer, not the executives.
We’re not going back anytime soon to a non-corporate, decentralized, re-personalized, re-localized model of independently owned and run businesses. Yet, if Hardin is right, that may be the only way in the long run to achieve a sustainable society, one in which we preserve rather than destroy the resources we’ve been given.
Adrian Kuzminski, retired Hartwick College philosophy professor
and Sustainable Otsego moderator, lives in Fly Creek.