The Tragedy of the Commons

It is easy to agree on and identify examples of pollution of, for example, the atmosphere or the oceans, which have a harmful impact on our shared environment. It is also easy, in principle, to identify that resources such as the oceans, atmosphere, polar regions and space are beyond the authority of any single nation-state and therefore are shared between states. What is harder, in global politics, is for states to avoid competing over these supposedly shared resources, or to prevent states from harming these shared resources in the pursuit of their own national interest.

The challenge of protecting the global commons is known as the tragedy of the commons. At the most pessimistic analysis, the global commons is doomed to remain something that states harm and compete for through their own self- interest, rather than protect and nurture as shared goals. This is down to several factors:

■ States act with realist motivations in efforts to seek to protect their own national interest. This might mean that a state will refuse to sign up to international emissions targets if it believes that doing so will be expensive or make its national economic output uncompetitive.

■ States are competing for economic power and resources, and this extends to natural resources. States are not acting in isolation from each other. A realist state will not want to slow its economic development by switching from easily exploited fossil fuels to more complicated and underdeveloped renewable energy.

The tragedy of the commons suggests that states’ national interests and international environmental interests rarely align with one another. There are, however, increasing signs that things are changing, since sometimes what is harmful at an international level is also harmful at a national level:

■ The impacts of high levels of pollution are felt most significantly at the local and national level. Extremely high levels of pollution in Chinese cities (so-called air-pocalypse) were a key factor in the country agreeing to international climate change agreements, notably the Paris Agreement. Air pollution in China accounts for around 500,000 deaths per year. In some cities, the World Health Organization (WHO) found pollution levels 56 times more than that deemed safe, and visibility in cities is sometimes reduced to less than 100 m. The immediate impacts of air pollution have become a national and local issue.

■ In recent climate change agreements, there have been efforts to ensure that states at different levels of development take equal steps on the road to change. For example, the 2015 Paris climate change agreement agreed that poorer states would receive financial assistance to help them move towards using cleaner sources of energy.

■ There is increasing acceptance that climate change brings with it a risk of natural disasters, such as flooding or drought, which have an immediate impact on human security and food production. India is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and, in 2016, it agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement.

Garrett Hardin used the idea of the tragedy of the commonsto draw parallels between global environmental degradation and the fate of common land before the introduction of enclosures. He argued that if pasture is open to all, each herder will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. However, sooner or later, the inherent logic of the commons will remorselessly generate tragedy, as the number of cattle exceeds the carrying capacity of the land. Each herder calculates that the positive benefit of adding one more animal (in terms of the proceeds from its eventual sale) will always exceed the negative impact on the pasture, as this is relatively slight and, anyway, shared by all herders. As Hardin put it, ‘Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all’. The idea of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ draws attention to the importance of the ‘global commons’, sometimes seen as ‘common pool resources’, and of threats posed to these by overpopulation (a particular concern for Hardin), pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction and over-fishing. Is the ‘tragedy of the commons’ an unsolvable problem? Hardin himself agued in favour of strengthened political control, especially to restrict population growth, even showing sympathy for the idea of world government.

Liberals, nevertheless, argue that the solution is, in effect, to abolish the commons by extending property rights, allowing the disciplines of the market (the price mechanism) to control resource usage. Although, as capitalism expanded, common land gradually became privately owned, it is more difficult to see how privatization could be applied to the global commons. Ostrom (1990) nevertheless argued that some societies have succeeded in managing common pool resources through developing diverse, and often bottom-up, institutional arrangements. However, others, particularly socialists and anarchists, reject the ‘tragedy of the commons’ altogether. Not only does historical evidence suggest that common land was usually successfully managed by communities (Cox 1985), as is borne out by examples such as the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, but the argument is also circular: its conclusions are implicit in the assumption that human nature is selfish and unchanging (Angus 2008). Ecosocialists would argue that selfishness, greed and the wanton use of resources are a consequence of the system of private ownership, not their cause. Community ownership, by contrast, engenders respect for the natural environment.