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 U.S. 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 of capitalism.
But there are other options to consider. A government or community could stop the corporations from being able to purchase the forest in the first place. The workers of the corporation could take over production from the CEO and run the corporation in a way that benefits the local community and local environment. Just as diverse as we humans are, so too are the creative ways we can organize ourselves to create a more sustainable future.
“The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.” —Bookchin
Ostrom, who debunked the tragedy of the commons, was a strong advocate for polycentricity, the notion that complex problems require a diverse set of solutions—that sustainable resource management requires a bottom-up approach and that communities must decide how to address these issues themselves. In other words, there is no one solution, and we must embrace a diversity of tactics. This is why, according to Ostrom in a 2017 interview with Big Think, “Any top-down government, whether on the right or the left, is unlikely to be able to solve many of the problems of resource sustainability in the world.”
The late radical social ecologist Murray Bookchin theorized how diverse communities, utilizing diverse tactics, could work together based on shared principles of sustainability, direct democracy, and equality. He coined this “communalism”—and many theorists and activists have further developed these theories and put them into practice. At its core, communalism is about bringing people together into assemblies to discuss the short-term and long-term challenges they face, and democratically decide on how to best address these challenges. This is how successful commons are regulated and maintained via community participation and shared interests, and how our future atmosphere must be maintained. That is, once we as a society recognize our atmosphere as a vital component of our commonly inhabited planet.
“Partial measures are far from sufficient, and approaches to renewable energy development that merely replicate capitalist forms may likely turn out to be a dead end. However, the cumulative impact of [communal] municipal efforts to challenge entrenched interests and actualize living alternatives – combined with coherent revolutionary visions, organizations, and strategies towards a radically transformed society- could perhaps be enough to fend off a dystopian future of deprivation and authoritarianism.” —Brian Tokar