Up until our serious of lectures on the commons and the different discourses around them I wouldn’t say I was fully informed of the origin of ‘Tragedy of the commons’, its direct and indirect connotations and the magnitude of its influence in our world’s economic and environmental policies and the debates it stirred. However, since our classes and my further readings I have learned that there is a lot into it and with the growing wave of discontent of neoliberalism looming in our world today it may be the best time problematizing Hardin’s theory. I hereby share my insights.

A number of questions can be raised on Hardin’s argument and the evidence he used of the ‘pasture open to all is destined to ruin as each herdsman is compelled to increase his herd, each pursuing his own interest…’ and on his proposed best solution: enclosures/ privatisation of the commons.

There are a number of questions that may come to a critical mind:

• Is it really rational to argue commons should not exist because they will always be mismanaged? Does that mean humans are not trusted when they act in groups, in a community? Are shared resources in communities really free of regulations and therefore destined to ruin?

• Have Hardin’s suggested Enclosures rescued tragedy of the commons? Is privatization the only way to protect the commons? Can commons based solutions be considered?

Historical truth and Validity of Hardin’s theory:

During our lecture after hearing Hardin’s account the first thing I thought was it may be true within the English cultural context but you can’t generalize across all cultures that resources shared/used in common will inevitably be doomed. I am sure most of us can come up with empirical evidences from our respective countries of origin, if not other corners of the world, of communities that live or used to live on different commons such as fisheries, forest, grazing land etc. without ruining the resources they depended on.

Contrary to what Hardin’s argument may lead you to believe it was also true even in the context of England. I found it shocking really, to realize the practice of the English commoners in regard to their common land that Hardin used as evidence to substantiate his theory actually lacks historical truth.

In this regard anthropologist Arthur McEvoy, argues that the ‘Tragedy “misrepresents the way common lands were used in the archetypal case” (i.e. England before enclosure). Similarly, British historian E P Thompson criticizes Hardin’s theory as “historically uninformed” and that it fails to see that commoners were not without common-sense’. Indeed I tend to agree it is an insult on the intelligence and history of the peasant farmers. Moreover, it may also send a wrong message in believing English culture to be individualistic.

The English farmers had methods of governing livestock numbers on a common land known as “Stinting”.

Thus a common or pasture may be said to be ‘stinted’: each grazier holds a certain number of stints, and a formula adjusts their value for different livestock (e.g. one stint = one ewe with lamb, four stints = one horse, etc.). The stinting formulae vary between commons and pastures. Stinted common land or pasture was managed by a voluntary association known as Stint-holders’ association/committee.

As is evident with above English common pasture it is not always true to assume that commons will be open access and unregulated. They are governed by cultural values, norms, and standards that control where, when, and how much is used. These values impose serious sanctions on over-use of the commons which also makes them sustainable from an ecological and cultural point of view.

Enclosures or Commons based solutions ?

Have Hardin’s suggested enclosures done better in preventing the ruin of the commons or bringing social wellbeing?

Our world’s environmental perils including global warming tell us that not everything is better off under private ownership? ‘Economic market operates like a runaway truck. It has no internal mechanism telling it when to stop—it can’t stop depleting the commons that sustain it.’

Simon Fairlie in his article “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain” (Land Magazine Issue 7, 2009.): says, “Over the course of a few hundred years, much of Britain’s land has been privatized —currently, in our ‘property-owning democracy’, nearly half the country (Britain) is owned by 40,000 land millionaires or 0.06 per cent of the population…” which is an empirical fact that it may be more appropriate to talk about the tragedy of enclosures rather than the commons.

Is it at all logical to argue commons should not exist because they will always be mismanaged? Who would you trust better a community managing and sharing resources as a group or individuals managing it? If the later, would this not be a contradiction to the principle of true democracy?

I think today more than any time in history COMMONS-BASED SOLUTIONS which are characterized by ‘distinctive innovations and policies that remedy problems by helping people manage resources cooperatively and sustainably’ should be urged.


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