The notion of the commons refers to shared land, publicly available for all people to access for leisure and when times get tough, for survival. Publicly shared lands have existed since humans first walked the earth but have progressively been enclosed for individual sustenance or for profit. The most profound period of enclosures came with the introduction of European capitalism, and mass displacement of agricultural people to toil in industrial factories.
Throughout European and US colonialism, the genocide, enslavement, and displacement of indigenous people from their lands was ‘justified’ via the pseudo-science concept of Social Darwinism – the notion that humans inherently compete for resources and the most violent and coercive are rightfully in charge. Similarly, the pseudo-science tragedy of the commons was created to justify the privatization of public lands. This ‘tragedy’ was based on the premise that shared resources will inherently be exploited and destroyed by the unruly public. That if left to their own volition people are inherently greedy, they don’t think in the long-term, they don’t communicate, and just like Social Darwinism, they must compete. Economist Elinor Ostrom debunked the tragedy of the commons and in doing so became the first woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize for Economics.
Our atmosphere, a publicly needed space containing many vital resources such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide – may seem to the untrained eye to be the tragedy of the commons playing out above our heads. But this is hardly the case, and one must only take their head out of the clouds and refocus on the social developments on-the-ground to see that climate change is really the tragedy of the enclosures, the inevitable consequence of capitalist privatization.
“Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status”. – Murray Bookchin
Capitalism is an economic system based on competition, and competition is a state of constant warfare. The competing corporation must always be in the process of growing, strengthening, improving in combat, and always ready to strike – or risk losing everything to someone or something that’s biggest, stronger, or more strategic. For corporations, success is based on profit, and profits are used to continue the cycle of growth, exploitation, and political influence.
The long-term consequences of a corporation’s actions are ignored by the corporation because short-term threats and successes are paramount. The moral implications of a corporation’s actions are ignored by the corporation because short-term threats and successes are everything. It’s a toxic environment of immediacy, anxiety, and violence – that leaves an epoch of garbage, pollutants, and suffering in its wake.
We can see how Social Darwinism describes un-regulated capitalism, a constant state of competition. A dog-eat-dog world. The constant struggle of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps–an impossible task if you’ve ever tried it. Similarly, the tragedy of the commons describes capitalism much more accurately than pastoral human relationships. It’s a rhetorical tool that says, “well that’s human nature folks, so there’s nothing we can do about it. Trying to change it is as futile as trying to change our biology.”
But just as the tragedy of the commons started as a thought experiment amongst colonial British economists in the 19th century, let’s invert it and use it to imagine ways that we can intervene to stop capitalism from exhausting the finite resources we all need to survive. Let’s imagine a forest, that if we did nothing, a corporation would clear-cut, drill for oil, mine for metals, and finally sell off to another corporation to dump garbage onto. Now we could intervene by regulating the corporation, requiring them to plant trees where they’ve cut one down, pay taxes for every ton of carbon they emit, and going back to our analogy of warring parties, we would introduce a referee into the wargames.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Climate Change Is the Inevitable Consequence of Capitalist Privatisation’.