The “Tragedy of the Commons” is one of the modern world’s most dangerous myths.
By George Monbiot. Published in Scientific American, January 1994
During the long dry seasons in the far north west of Kenya, the people of the Turkwel River keep themselves alive by feeding their goats on the pods of the acacia trees growing on its banks. Every clump of trees is controlled by a committee of elders, who decide who should be allowed to use them and for how long.
Anyone coming into the area who wants to feed his goats on the pods has to negotiate with the elders. Depending on the size of the pod crop, they will allow him in or tell him to move on. If anyone overexploits the pods or tries to browse his animals without negotiating with the elders first he will be driven off with sticks: if he does it repeatedly he may be killed. The acacia woods are a common: a resource owned by many families. Like all the commons of the Turkana people, they are controlled with fierce determination.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Turkana were battered by a combination of drought and raiding by enemy tribes, armed with automatic weapons. Many people came close to starvation, and the Kenyan government, the United Nations Development Programme and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization decided that something had to be done to help them.
The authorities knew nothing of how the Turkana regulated access to their commons. What they saw, in the acacia forests, and the grass and scrublands of the savannahs, was a succession of unrelated people moving in, taking as much as they wanted, then moving out again. If the Turkana tried to explain how it worked, their concepts were lost in translation. It looked like a free-for-all, and the experts blamed the lack of regulation for the disappearance of the vegetation. This was, in fact, caused not by people but by drought.
They decided that the only way to stop the people from overusing their resources was to settle them down, get rid of most of their animals and encourage them to farm. On the banks of the Turkwel River they started a series of irrigation schemes, where ex-nomads could own a patch of land and grow grain. They spent US$60,000 per hectare in setting it up.
People flocked in, not, on the whole, to farm, but to trade, to find paid labour or to seek protection from their enemies. With the first drought the irrigation scheme collapsed. The immigrants reverted to the only certain means of keeping themselves alive in the savannahs: herding animals. They spread along the banks, into the acacia woods.
Overwhelmed by their numbers, the elders could do nothing to keep them away from their trees. If they threatened to kill anyone for taking pods without permission, they were reported to the police. The pods and the surrounding grazing were swiftly exhausted and people started to starve. The commons had become a free-for-all. The authorities had achieved exactly what they set out to prevent.
The overriding of commoners’ rights has been taking place, often with similarly disastrous consequences, for centuries, all around the world. But in the last three decades it has greatly accelarated. The impetus for much of this change came from a paper whose title has become a catchphrase among developers.
In The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin, an American biologist, argued that common property will always be destroyed, because the gain that individuals make by over-exploiting it will outweigh the loss they suffer as a result of its over-exploitation. He used the example of a herdsman, keeping his cattle on a common pasture. With every cow the man added to his herds he would gain more than he lost: he would be one cow richer, while the community as a whole would bear the cost of the extra cow. He suggested that the way to prevent this tragedy from unfolding was to privatize or nationalize common land.
The paper, published in Science magazine, had an enormous impact. It neatly encapsulated a prevailing trend of thought, and appeared to provide some of the answers to the growing problem of how to prevent starvation. For authorities such as the World Bank and Western governments it provided a rational basis for the widespread privatization of land. In Africa, among newly-independent governments looking for dramatic change, it encouraged the massive transfer of land from tribal peoples to the state or to individuals.
In Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, developers hurried to remove land from commoners and give it to people they felt could manage it better. The commoners were encouraged to work for those people as waged labour or to move to the towns, where, in the developing world, they could become the workforce for the impending industrial revolutions.
But Hardin’s paper had one critical flaw. He had assumed that individuals can be as selfish as they like in a commons, because there is no one to stop them. In reality, traditional commons are closely regulated by the people who live there. There are two elements to common property: common and property. A common is the property of a particular community which, like the Turkana of the Turkwel River, decides who is allowed to use it and to what extent they are allowed to exploit it.
Hardin’s thesis works only where there is no ownership. The oceans, for example, possessed by no one and poorly regulated, are over-fished and polluted, as every user tries to get as much out of them as possible, and the costs of their exploitation are bourne by the world as a whole. But these are not commons but free-for-alls. In a true commons, everyone watches everyone else, for they know that anyone over-exploiting a resource is exploiting them.
The effects of dismantling the commons to prevent Hardin’s presumed tragedy of over-exploitation from running its course can scarcely be overstated. In Brazil, for example, peasant communities are being pushed off their land to make way for agro-industry. Land that supported thousands of people becomes the exclusive property of one family. Mechanisation means that hardly any permanent labour is needed.
Some of the dispossessed go to the cities where, instead of an industrial revolution, they find unemployment and destitution. Others go to the Amazon, where they may try to move into the commons belonging to the Indians, defying their regulations by cutting and burning the forests.
No group has suffered more than the people singled out by Hardin’s paper: the traditional herders of animals, or pastoralists. In Kenya the Maasai have been cajoled into privatizing their commons: in some parts every family now owns a small ranch. Not only is this destroying Maasai society, as tight communities are artificially divided into nuclear families, but it has undercut the very basis of their survival.
In the varied and changeable savannahs, the only way a herder can survive is by moving. Traditionally the Maasai followed the rain across their lands, leaving an area before its resources were exhausted and returning only when it had recovered. Now, confined to a single plot, they have no alternative but to graze it until drought or overuse brings the vegetation to an end. When their herds die, entrepreneurs move in, buy up their lands for a song and either plough them for wheat and barley, exhausting the soil within a few years, or use them as collateral for securing business loans.
In Somalia, Siad Barre’s government nationalized the commons, nullifying the laws devised by Somali communities to protect their grazing lands from people of other clans. When charcoal burners moved in to cut their trees, the local people found that there was nothing they could do to stop them. The free-for-all with which the commons regime was replaced was one of the reasons for the murderous chaos now governing the country.
The enclosure of the commons, of which these are examples, has always been ruinous for the commoners. In Britain we choose to remember what we consider the positive effects of enclosure: the creation of a workforce to drive the Industrial Revolution. But the expropriation of common land by private landlords took place in many cases centuries before industrialization.
The dispossessed commoners became vagrants, hounded from county to county, without licences permitting them to work, begging and stealing to get by, sometimes expressing their fury by rioting or burning the new owners’ hayricks. It was only after hundreds of years of proscription, destitution and starvation that jobs for the dispossessed became widely available in the cities.
These changes in the ownership of land lie at the heart of our environmental crisis. Traditional rural communities use their commons to supply most of their needs: food, fuel, fabrics, medicine and housing. To keep themselves alive they have to maintain a diversity of habitats: woods, grazing lands, fields, ponds, marshes and scrub. Within these habitats they need to protect a wide range of species: different types of grazing, a mixture of crops, trees for fruit, fibres, medicine or building.
The land is all they possess, so they have to look after it well. But when the commons are privatized, they pass into the hands of people whose priority is to make money. The most efficient means of making it is to select the most profitable product and concentrate on producing that.
So, in Kenya, the Maasai’s savannahs – a mixture of woods and scrub, grasslands and flowering swards – are replaced with uniform fields of wheat. The crofts of Scotland, whose forests, marshes, fields and pastures answered all the commoners’ needs, gave way to sheep and pine plantations. As the land is no longer the sole means of survival, but an investment that can be exchanged, the new owners can, if necessary, over-exploit it and reinvest elsewhere.
As land changes hands, so does power. When communities own the land they make the laws, and develop them to suit their own needs. Everyone is responsible for ensuring that everyone else obeys them. As landlords take over, it is their law that prevails, whether or not it leads to the protection of local resources. Thus, when the people living around Twyford Down try to prevent a road from destroying their common, it is they who are arrested for impeding the bulldozers, rather than the developers, who are committing, in commoners’ terms, an unspeakable crime.
The language in which the old laws were expressed gives way to the language of outsiders. With it go many of the concepts and cautionary tales encouraging people to protect their environment. Translated into the dominant language they appear irrational and archaic. As they disappear, so does much that makes our contact with the countryside meaningful: it becomes a series of unrelated resources, rather than an ecosystem of which we, economically, culturally and spiritually, are a part. For human beings, as for the biosphere, the tragedy of the commons is not the tragedy of their existence but the tragedy of their disappearance.