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The Cotillion on the Commons

The Cotillion on the Commons

When Garrett Hardin published his paper in Science in 1968 on The Tragedy of the Commons, I thought, “Gee, he has just made this up” . . . I was mystified later when all of a sudden The Tragedy of the Commons became the way everyone looked at [human coordination].[1]

                                                                      —Elinor Ostrom: the only woman to win Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science 


            Thinking about Garrett Hardin’s article The Tragedy of the Commons[2] evokes George Orwell’s observation that “Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”[3] Like compassionate conservatism, neoliberalism, and last week’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, Hardin’s catchy title wraps right-wing ideology in a benign—or even empathetic—sounding package. 

            Reader beware, however: Hardin’s “commons” refers not to common people but rather to a mythical common space—a “pasture open to all”[4]—being fought over by capitalists in their singular pursuit of what capitalists usually pursue: profits.[5] Were Hardin’s reference to the former kind of commons, his article would not be even mildly controversial: after all, it is obvious that common people live in tragedy.[6]

            On Hardin’s commons, each herdsperson—acting as a rational economic actor—is motivated to maximize the number of his or her cattle’s grazing in order to receive the full benefit of selling each additional animal while incurring only a fraction of the marginal cost from the resulting harm to the pasture. Hardin concludes “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”[7]He then describes each of various pollution problems, including greenhouse gas emissions (“GHGs”), as a “reverse” tragedy of the commons: 

Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in . . . The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest,” so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers.[8]

            The above italicized words evidence perhaps the three most glaring fallacies of Hardin’s pessimistic article, rendering his argument circular. Hardin presupposes “independent,” “rational,” and “free-enterpris[ing]” human behavior on the commons. By “rational,” Hardin refers to Adam Smith’s economic idea that “decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society.”[9] This assumption, however, is inherently contradictory in The Tragedy of the Commonssince Hardin argues that each individual herdsperson’s acting “rationally”—by maximizing the number of his or her cattle’s grazingon the pasture—will notbe the best decision for the entire society. By additionally positing “independen[ce]” and “free enterprise,” Hardin eschews the mitigating alternatives of human cooperation and socialism. 

            Subsequent scholarship has addressed each of human cooperation and socialismas potential solutions to the tragedy of the commons. For example, McMaster University Professor David Feeny and his co-authors extend Hardin’s myth thus: “[A]fter several years of declining yields, the herdsmen are likely to get together to seek ways to (1) control access to the pasture, and (2) agree upon a set of rules of conduct, perhaps including stinting, that effectively limits exploitation.”[10] And University of Michigan Professor John Vandermeer writes the following about socialism as a potential solution:

Eliminating the system of competition and private property would obviously be the ultimate solution . . . [I]magine a future socio-political system in which social contracts are established democratically with the participation of all members in delimiting what should be done with all of the commons, the natural ones and the socially constructed ones . . . [S]uch a proposition requires radical political restructuring.[11]

            City University of New York Professor David Harvey points out two additional fallacies in the article: “[Hardin] uses a small-scale example to explicate a global problem”[12] and “Not all forms of the commons are open access.”[13] So, we have already five fallacies in—when one would suffice to undermine—Hardin’s logic.

            UC Berkeley Law Professor Daniel Farber and UCLA Law Professor Ann Carlson apply Hardin’s tragedy of the commons argument explicitly to “rational” climate change policy for a hypothetical average country they christen Freedonia:


If the rest of the world fails to address the greenhouse effect, Freedonia can do little on its own, and therefore shouldn’t bother. If everyone else does take action to control the greenhouse effect, Freedonia can contribute only slight additional help but will have to spend a lot of money to do so. So if everyone else “does the right thing,” Freedonia should take a “free ride” on their efforts rather than wasting its own resources to minimal effect. Thus, no matter what the rest of the world does, Freedonia is better off to do nothing. Reasoning the same way, every country in the world decides to take no action.[14]

Notwithstanding the above Hardin-pessimistic prediction, countries in the world havecooperated for more than two decades to address GHGs, although certainly not to a sufficient degree.[15]

            Climate change is an exigent issue for humankind. No longer the exclusive purview of scientists, it has emerged into the mainstream media, political debate, and real lives of those suffering periodic climatic catastrophes such as floods, hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires. Climate change resonates with not only Generation Z and Millennials—who are on a collision path with its future consequences[16]—but also Generation X and the author’s parents’ generation as well as, arguably, at least five pastgenerations before them. Karl Marx (1818-83), for example, offers this topical vision for society’s ecological responsibility to the planet: “Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”[17]

            One much debated “solution” to climate change is the carbon tax, arguably a progeny of Hardin’s logic. For example, Wilfrid Laurier University Professor Alex Latta observed in 2009, “Recent efforts to extend the discipline of the market to influence individual decisions that affect common resources such as the atmosphere—using such tools as ‘green’ taxes or emissions trading—can also be considered offspring of Hardin’s thesis.”[18] The intersection of The Tragedy of the Commons, GHGs, and the carbon tax has even been argued before the Supreme Court of the United States:


The case of GHG emissions presents a tragedy-of-the-commons if individuals and firms are not appropriately charged the full social cost that their emissions imposes on others. Appropriate charges for GHG-emissions, and subsidies for actions that reduce such emissions, can help achieve the economically efficient level of GHGs—that is, the level at which the marginal benefit of reducing an additional increment of GHG emissions just equals the marginal cost of reducing that increment.

Like other tragedy-of-the-commons problems, GHG emissions are not efficiently solved in a piecemeal fashion . . . EPA properly recognized that an efficient solution to a GHG emissions problem must involve other major emissions-producing countries, and not just the United States . . .[19]

The United States does not yet have a carbon tax, although the Canadian province of British Columbia does.

            This paper critiques Hardin’s article: while it acknowledges the essay’s celebration by the mainstream and particular role in the so-called fight against global climate change, it concludes that the article is essentially ideology rather than science.[20] The paper views Hardin’s work through a Marxist lens, applying the tools of Marxist dialectics, and analyzes the carbon tax and its mirror image Social Cost of Carbon (“SCC”), arguably a manifestation of the article’s ideology.

            Capitalismrequiresan ideology: it lulls human masses into an acceptance of the current economic order and bamboozles them into fearing the prospect of changing that order. Ideology generally causes people to concentrate on the surface appearances of things and eschews the bigger picture. This leads to the distorted way of thinking desirable to the ideology’s proponents. 

            The Tragedy of the Commonspresents the mainstream with a passive explication of poverty and inequality. Rather than identifying the capitalist mode of production as the root cause for these problems, Hardin blames population growth: in effect, he blames the poor for their own condition and exonerates capitalism—what he later calls “the privatism of free enterprise.”[21] His article’s 50-year-old ideology is alive and well in the discourse on climate change. It fuels a burgeoning “green” capitalism as the imagined way out of the exigent ecological crisis, when there is limited time for such a risky distraction. 

            Only a few weeks ago, while participating in an invitational mini-conference entitled “Radical Climate Justice and the Humanities,” the author listened to activist and University of California Santa Barbara Professor John Foran warn, “[W]e have less than nine years left till the planet runs the risk of passing the tipping point that may trigger runaway climate chaos.”[22] 

Social Cost of Carbon and Carbon Tax

            The SCC is an estimate of how much carbon pollution costs society via climate change damages: the standard metric is the cost of emitting one additional ton of carbon dioxide.[23] Another way to think about the SCC, which is not purely in monetary terms, is, “How much is future climate change mitigation worth to us today?”[24] The SCC, therefore, can also be considered the optimal basis for a carbon tax price.[25]

            In 2010 the Obama Administration assembled a group of government officials to calculate the SCC. The group used three computer models to estimate the economic impacts of climate change using different discount rates.[26] Before being rescinded by President Trump, the US Federal SCC estimate was $37 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution.[27] Based on a recent report, however, it is currently in the range of $1-$6.[28]

            There has been much political, scientific, academic, and business debate surrounding what the SCC should be. On one hand, Democrats, climate scientists, and climate economists argue that the estimate should be higher; on the other hand, Republicans and the fossil-fuel industry argue that the estimate should be lower.[29]

            In February 2017 the US House of Representatives Subcommittees on Environment and Oversight held a hearing on the SCC. The Republicans and their witnesses argued that the SCC was too high. In their view, the estimate should have been based on domestic, rather than global, climate impacts and a higher discount rate should have been used (which would yield a lower SCC estimate). Republican Chairman and Arizona Senator Andy Biggs made the Hardinesque argument: “It is simply not right for Americans to be bearing the brunt of costs when the majority of benefits will be conferred away from home.” This conflicts with the view of many climate economists that the SCC should be muchhigher, as high as $200 or more.[30]

            Could the SCC and the carbon tax propose a solution to climate change? Is this arithmetic debate over the SCC far too narrow and ultimately missing the point that it is our economic systemthat is the problem?

            University of Chicago Law School Professor Eric Posner has labeled the SCC a “Pigouvian tax”—after English economist Arthur Cecil Pigou (1877-1959)—a tax levied on a market activity that generates negative externalities.[31]According to activist and former Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Noam Chomsky, a fundamental flaw of market systems is they largely ignore externalities (i.e., the effect of economic transactions on others). Chomsky invokes the example of a new car sale: consideration of the resulting increases in the number of cars, congestion, accidents, and pollution is left out. Chomsky observes that climate change is an “externality which is going to destroy us unless something is done.”[32] Pigouvian taxes are, in theory, intended to internalize externalities.[33]

            In Posner’s view, the U.S. has been reticent to enact Piguovian taxes and instead has used the SCC’s foundational calculations as a guide to various regulations, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s fuel economy standards. There, the intended result is for the cost of cars to increase, ideally leading to fewer cars being sold and the leveling off of carbon emissions. 

            Central to Posner’s criticism of the SCC is its calculation.[34] According to Posner, the problem stems from the difficulty in estimating the precise economic impact of climate change. According to the three models, if average global temperatures increase by 2.5 degrees, global gross domestic product will decline by 1.8 percent. However, these models do not accommodate the cataclysmic effect of extreme temperature increases on long-term economic growth. Posner expresses doubts about these calculations and their economic implications and then summarizes, “The current SCC calculation embodies the worst of both worlds: too low from the standpoint of global well-being, too high from the standpoint of law.” The former is problematic because most climate economists believe the SCC should be around $200 per ton rather than $37. The latter is problematic as induced increases in the SCC could spell major economic challenges that will, in Posner’s view, not pass judicial scrutiny.[35]

            The U.S. does not yet have a carbon tax; it would benefit us to examine how a carbon tax has fared elsewhere. Doing so can give us a better idea of its effectiveness and what its likely implications would be. Accordingly, consider the case of the Canadian province of British Columbia’s carbon tax.

            In 2008 the BC government introduced a carbon tax on the purchase and use of fuels. The tax is intended to cover approximately 70 percent of BC’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The tax started out at C$10 per ton in 2008, increasing by C$5 per ton each year until reaching its current rate of C$30 per ton beginning in 2012. The tax translates to a C7¢ per liter surcharge on gasoline in BC.[36]

            The rationale behind BC’s carbon tax was that its cost would spur individuals and businesses—as rational consumers in a market economy—to embrace cost-efficient decisions, thereby lowering emissions and increasing demand for clean solutions. As a result, businesses would be encouraged to innovate and develop new climate-friendly technologies.[37] From 2007 to 2014, BC reportedly saw a 5.5 percent decrease in emissions.[38] This reduction is far lower than what is needed to stop the worst effects of climate change.[39]

            From a critical perspective, BC’s carbon tax has allowed industry to profess a green shift in the economy and to propagate the ideology that the interests of the environment and the interests of business are one in the same. Along this vein,The Economistreferred to BC as “the land of green and money” and several environmental groups have also lauded BC’s efforts. Thisreactionmasks the fact that the majority of the carbon tax costs have fallen on the working class, while industry has received the majority of related benefits.[40]

            From the vantage point of mainstream economics, BC’s carbon tax is a regressive consumption tax in that it is a flattax: the poor pay a disproportionate share of their income relative to the rich. The production logic of our current economic system—capitalism—is profit maximization. Accordingly, increases in the costs of production will ultimately be passed on to consumers, theoretically incentivizing them to make green decisions to ease the burden on their wallets.[41]

            However, many people don’t have the requisite funds to make these environmentally friendly decisions. As a result, working people are taxed for meeting their basic needs such as heating their homes and commuting to work. This financial burden is exacerbated by the fact that real wages have continued to stagnate, resulting in even less discretionary resources in the face of the rising costs of necessities. Itis notwithstanding that many people wantto make green decisions; however—as is often the case with neoliberalism—this is not a viable option because there have not been the requisite investments in alternatives such as public transit.[42] 

            In the wake of BC’s carbon tax adoption, the provincial government became concerned that BC’s industries would no longer be competitive in the global marketplace. Because of this worry, the governmentrewarded industry with what is referred to as “corporate welfare” or government tax breaks and subsidies to offset increases in the costs of production. This scheme has effectively contravened the purported benefits of the carbon tax. In the end, industry has minimal incentive to make the green shift. In the contest between profits and green decisions, profits generally win.[43]

            The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates BC’s carbon tax needs to increase to C$200 by 2020 in order to spur the industry to make the green shift.[44] This amount is evocative of what many US climate economists believe the SCC should be. However, the C$200 is seven times the current BC carbon tax rate and we’re already in 2018: a sudden tax increase is unlikely to happen, considering the extensive work done to make these rates “optimal”, or, favorable to industry.[45] However, even if this C$200 rate was achieved and industry was not receiving corporate welfare, the costs would be placed eventually on the shoulders of working people.[46]

            Another proposed market-based remedy for global climate change is “cap and trade”—also known as “emissions trading”—in which governments create markets  for  carbon trading and “offsets.”[47] Countries are first given a CO2 cap; if they exceed their limit, they may “offset” their emissions by buying “carbon credits” from a country below its cap. The rationale behind cap and trade is to put a price on CO2 emissions and encourage industry to invest in low-carbon technologies.[48] In its goal to reduce GHGs, however, cap and trade has fallen short: offsets allow trading that does not affect emissions. On the other hand, cap and trade has been successful in increasing profits to large corporations and gamblers. It has also been reported that cap and trade could bring about another financial crash. Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies James Hansen labels cap and trade “the temple of doom” and predicts it locks in “disasters for our children and grandchildren.”[49]

            U.S. cap and trade is covered with the fingerprints of industry campaign contributions. As in the case of BC’s carbon tax, industries have been granted carve outs and subsidies. Simply put, government has not evidenced that it can regulate industry effectively to achieve necessary reductions in GHGs. 

One cap and trade plan, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (“REDD”), permits wealthy countries to offset their emissions by paying poorer tree-rich countries to reduce deforestation.[50] Under this scheme, Chevron—with its 16 refineries in California—can continue to pollute by buying offsets.[51] Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, warns:

Chevron does operate a carbon offset project called REDDin the Atlantic Forest of Brazil. And they have the green police, the green force, that is a police system that basically has a history of shooting at local forest-dependent communities that try to come into their forest for subsistence. So there’s human rights with these issues that we’re trying to lift up.[52]

REDD also wreaks havoc here in California. Richmond resident Isabella Zizi observes, “[T]he Chevron refinery actually does extract oil from the crude down in the Amazon and also tar sands up in Canada . . . [But] they’re continuing to extract and emit fossil fuels in our towns, and it’s directly impacting us as indigenous peoples, people of color, low-income communities . . .”[53]

Carbon taxes and cap and trade are Pigouvian attempts to internalize the externality of climate change. They do not, however, adequately address the economic system that creates this externality. Each “solution” is essentially, in the words of Marxian economist and The New School Professor Richard Wolff, “a quick fix, . . . a marginal adjustment.”[54] These attempts can be analogized to placing a Band-Aid on a hemophiliac: sooner or later, that Band-Aid will wear off and blood will come spurting out.

Introduction to Marxist Dialectics and Their Application to Hardin’s Article  

Marx’s dialectic method is mystifying to most Americans. Such confusion is partly due to the negative associations many Americans have with Marx. These preconceptions have been informed by propaganda for over almost a century, seeking to pit capitalism, the American way of life against communism, the perceived Soviet and allied way of life. This propaganda infuses cycles of fear and stifles substantive American debate on Marx’s writings. Intellectual and popular confusion have also reigned because of a lack of understanding about how Marx expected his theories to be executed. 

 Even among Marxists, there is controversy over dialectics. At certain institutions (e.g.,Yale University and New York University) this methodology is almost radioactive; at others, it is almost revered [e.g.,UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, York (Toronto), and Oregon]. This tension over thought is a tale of two cities: one populated by the so-called “analytical” Marxists, and the other by the disciples of dialectics. However, unlike Paris and London in Charles Dickens’s classic, thesetwo cities are situated in the same nation: Marxism. 

Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) wrote, “Marx’s words are like bats. You can see in them both birds and mice.” New York University Professor Bertell Ollman attributes this difficulty to Marx’s philosophy of internal relations, the building block of Marx’s dialectic method from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). This method allowed Marx to understand the complexity and constant change of capitalism to connect theory with practice. For Marx, “in capitalism everything seems and in fact is contradictory”: accordingly, “much more needs to be done to help people, who can only ‘see’ paradoxes, to ‘see’ contradictions, and to grasp in theory and realise in practice what is required to resolve them.”[55]

Understanding current events of society can be overwhelming and deciding the process to study the constant change within it can be equally challenging:            

Society is like a vehicle that every one of us tries to climb aboard to find a job, a home, various social relationships, goods to satisfy our needs and fancies—in short, a whole way of life. And who can doubt that society is changing . . . But just how fast is it changing, and, more important, in what direction?[56]

Dialectics is a way of thinking that helps us comprehend the broader context, or the bigger picture, in order to better understand an object of study; dialectics takes into account the constant change that occurs in the world.[57]The two essential ingredients of dialectic methodology are interaction and change; its four essential steps are ontology, epistemology, self-clarification, and teaching.

To illustrate the role of dialectics, Marx recounts the Roman myth of Cacus, a cave dweller and opportunistic oxen thief. In an effort to deceive those attempting to recover his stolen oxen, Cacus had the oxen walk backwards into his den; this resulted in footprints that made it appear as if the oxen had exitedthe den. When the footprints were found the next morning, the previous owners deduced incorrectly that the oxen travelled from the cave to the middle of the adjacent field and disappeared. They made the mistake of focusing exclusively on the evidence before them and were duped.[58]To understand what really happened to the oxen, the owners should have considered the context of the events related to the theft.  

Professor Ollman observes, as illustrated by this myth, “[R]eality is more than appearances.”[59]The myth demonstrates a larger point: to understand virtually anything, one needs to know the bigger picture: how it came into being, how it has changed, and how it fits into a larger worldview. 

Dialectics is a methodology to come to grips with a changing world by elongating our notion of anything to comprise its process: its origins, possible evolution, and relation to other components and to the whole. It is in this manner that the study of phenomena encompasses history and systematic relatedness. Dialectics can be viewed as a critique of the common methodology within academia and the real world, to break up subjects without giving any thought to their interconnectedness to the bigger whole.  

Professor Harvey summarizes 11 propositions of the principles of dialectics, including (1) emphasis on understanding processes and relations over analysis of elements and “things,” (2) constitution of elements or “things” out of processes and relations within bounded systems or wholes, (3) internal contradictions of “things” by virtue of such constitution, (4) internal heterogeneity of “things” at every level, (5) contingency and containment of space and time with their processes, (6) mutual constitution of parts and wholes, (7) interchangeability of subject and object and of cause and effect, (8) emergence of transformative behavior (or creativity) out of contradictions, (9) inherent characteristic of change in all systems and aspects thereof, (10) dialectics itselfbeing a process, and (11) exploration of “possible worlds” being integral to dialectics.[60]

Dialectics focuses on four types of relations, identity/difference, interpretation of opposites, quantity/quality, and contradiction:

·      Identity/difference refers to understanding the identity of components without being trapped in a polar understanding that something is identical or opposite of something else. Identity/difference also takes into account the complex relations of components. 

·      Interpretation of opposites means that to understand a component, one must examine its surrounding conditions. Something may change under different circumstances: automation, for example, may be seen as detrimental to workers under capitalism but beneficial to workers under communism. 

·      Quantity/quality delineates the multiple changes that take place within something. Quantity may refer to temporal or physical values. Quality refers to a change in appearance of something: an individual may perceive things differently when 65 than when 21.  

·      Contradiction refers to the unharmonious development of differing but related components. For Marx, capitalism was replete with contradictions: for example, capitalism’s ability to increase production contradicts workers’ inability to consume such production.

In dialectics, process and relation are intertwined. Process uncovers history, development, and potential futures. Marx notes it would behoove us to study history backwards: in other words, understanding the present in the context of events that helped it come into being. Although studying history in reverse may seem peculiar, it provides an interesting lens to understand the following remark attributed to American Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner: “The past is not dead—it is not even in the past.”[61] Professor Ollman believes that Marx would have added, “And the future is not unborn—it is not even in the future”[62]: this perception of history derives from Marx’s philosophy of internal relations, which is central to the understanding of dialectics. 

As dialectics is properly understanding the whole, its changes, and its interaction with internal components, there has to be a way to wrap our minds around this enormous task: enter the process of abstraction

The process of abstraction can be understood as breaking up the wholeinto discrete parts that can be studied in order better to understand the whole. Because attempting to understand any whole—be it herdspersons on a pasture or global climate change—is very difficult, the need to separate out its parts is evident. Many people abstract but do not realize it; it is unlikely they understand this process in relation to Marx’s methodology: “Our minds can no more swallow the world whole at one sitting than can our stomachs.”[63] This is the first of four ways Marx uses abstraction: what Professor Ollman describes as a mental process of focusing and setting boundaries, that is influenced by life experiences.

The second way Marx uses abstraction refers to the productsof dividing up the whole. Professor Ollman explains this as the result of the activity performed in the previous paragraph: the intellectual construct that is created.

Abstraction in the third sense refers to poorabstractions, distorted in some way, that don’t contribute to an effective understanding of the whole. Professor Ollman describes this third abstraction as a particular subset of the second: a particular mental construct that—due to its size or its boundary—is too narrow or too little. This is the way that Marx understands capitalist ideology. Distortion (for example, the bourgeois understanding of freedom) results from the phenomenon that the related units of thought do not contain sufficient interconnections or time to develop an understanding. Paradoxesalso fall into this third abstraction, such as the paradox of poverty in the wealthy US or the paradox of religious hypocrisy in Christians’, Jews’, or Muslims’ mistreatment of others.

Abstraction in the fourth sense refers to a type of organization of components that cater to capitalism. These are real world abstractions (e.g.,capital), notmental constructs, and thereby differ from the previous three. They result from connections established over the course of society’s life. An example, according to Professor Ollman, is commoditization in a capitalist society: the experience of buying and selling things or the fact that goods have price tags.

The process of abstraction has three main modalities. The first is abstraction of extension, which refers to setting limits upon the abstraction  time and space. In this way, limits are placed upon the relative quality of the abstraction and its historical development. The second mode is abstraction of vantage point, which refers to the type of lens or perspective brought into making abstractions: one’s vantage point greatly influences the type of abstractions that are made. Through one’s vantage point, an abstraction can also present multiple points of view. The third mode is abstraction of level of generality, which deals with the type of whole to be studied. It is in this way that an abstraction can be studied in relation to its particular capitalist connotation or to the more general human condition. 

The author’s instant purpose is to apply dialectics to Hardin’s article, not to climate change (the latter will occupy the author’s coming years in pursuit of a PhD degree at a US, Canadian, or European institution). Dialectic analysis provides the following insights on The Tragedy of the Commons:

·      The relied-upon Adam Smith “invisible hand” metaphor ignores the bigger picture: the herdspersons on the open pasture would have relationships beyond merely sharing a platform for profits. Some, many, or all of them would have socialinteractions with each other. For Hardin to ignore even the possibility of economic cooperation, therefore, appears illogical and pessimistic. 

·      The focus on the herdspersons ignores the cattle. If the profit-maximizing behavior of the former were destined for “ruin to all,” there would presumably be an intervening deterioration in the health of—and the resulting quality of products from—the cattle. This would cause customers either to seek other markets or to reduce their offered prices. Faced with this predictable risk to revenue and profits, the herdspersons would likely adjust their profit-maximizing behavior.

·      The intellectual construct is too narrow and distorted: it is unclear, for example, whether the society at large (i.e.,beyond the commons) is agrarian, feudal, or industrial. One of the consequences of a “far too narrow set of presumptions,” according to Professor Harvey, is that “thinking has often polarized between private-property solutions or authoritarian state intervention.”[64]

·      All three modes of abstraction are impaired: (1) the mode of extensiondoes not go far enough into the future: what will the herdspersons do after the ruin of the commons? will they pursue other employment? will they re-locate? will they commit suicide?; (2) the vantage point’s singularity (the commons—rather than the people, the cattle, the customers, the extended community, or the state—and one particular sort of commons, at that[65]) renders the argument ideological[66]; and (3) the level of generality [67] features no description of other production occurring in the economy surrounding the commons (i.e.,what Marx refers to as production “in general,” designed to transform nature for satisfaction of human needs), the differing wealth levels of the herdspersons (before and after their initial contact with the commons), or capitalism. Hardin does not even mention, in almost 6,200 words, either “capitalism” or “socialism.”[68]

Capitalism: The Reprobate of Climate Change

As someone who seeks to apply a Marxist approach, the author believes capitalism is to blame for climate change. In a recent opinion piece, for example, in The New York Times—by no means a Marxist periodical—Benjamin Fong writes:

The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen . . . It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.[69]

Marx and his close collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820-95) understood that capitalism tore apart humanity’s unity with nature through a “metabolic rift,” which they saw as “a separation that deepened and further developed under capitalism, where a small minority of the population controls all major aspects of the economy.”[70] Capitalists’ interests revolve around holding onto their power and maximizing their profits. The global “free” market compels capitalists to pursue these ends whatever the costs to the rest of us or to the planet.[71]

For Marx, the alternative to capitalism’s profit maximization for a minority was a democratically planned economy that served social needs: in other words, socialism. Marx described socialism as “the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”[72]

Is it possible to reform our way out of climate change? Can we design a carbon tax that is fair, by increasing the dividend to those who need it most or by providing robust alternative transit systems? Or is Professor Wolff correct when he observes that “recurring problems of capitalism . . . are built into the system and if you want to solve them, you can’t do that within the framework of the system, you have to face the fact that the system itselfis the problem”?[73]


Hardin’s non-consideration, in his The Tragedy of the Commons, of either human cooperation or socialismreminds me of the conclusion to the late University of Regina Professor Bill Livant’s ironic—and iconic—one-page chapter on dialectics, The Hole in Hegel’s Bagel: “[T]he whole without a hole is really a part in drag trying to pass itself off as everything, which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad definition of ideology.”[74]

Hardin ignores (1) the “hole” of human cooperation, which created the space for Indiana University Professor Elinor Ostrom (“In that [Hardin-]imagined pasture,” she said, “People didn’t talk [and] the presumption was that humans were helpless. . .”[75]) to earn her 2009 Nobel Prize, and (2) the “hole” of socialism. As a result, applying Bill Livant’s dialectic reasoning, I believe the “whole” of Hardin’s article is ideology rather than science. As UC Hastings and University of Turin Law Professor Ugo Mattei observes:

When viewed in context, Hardin was far from the naïve microbiologist . . . [R]ather he contributed to a long lineage of economists and lawyers, securing a place for radical individualism and eventual dismantlement of the public domain in favor of private interests.[76]


Ryan J. Fisher

Ryan J. Fisher—a native New Yorker and San Francisco resident—is a 2015 graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study (Race, Justice, and Statecraft in America, with a cross-school minor in Politics); a May 2018 JD candidate at UC Hastings College of the Law (social justice); and, beginning next fall, a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara (Sociology). His research interests are counter-hegemonic (particularly Marxist theory and dialectics) and interdisciplinary: race, politics, and climate change. He is an acolyte of Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, a player of saxophone and basketball, and an aficionado of free time.

[1]Amartya Sen and Elinor Ostrom—A Discussion on Global Justice(YouTube 2011) (Fonna Forman-Barzilai moderates a discussion between Nobel Laureates as part of New Frontiers in Global Justice Conference at UC San Diego), beginning at approximately 33 minutes 30 seconds, (Dec. 20, 2017, 6:20 PM),

[2]Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, 162 Sci. 1243-48 (1968), (Dec. 14, 2017, 4:30 AM),

[3]George Orwell, Politics and the English Language,inEssays348-60 (Penguin Books 2000) at 359.

[4]Hardin, Ibid. at 1244.

[5]Expressed more simply, “L’individualisme égoïste est la présupposition centrale qui étaie l’analyse de Hardin” (“Individual selfishness is the central assumption underpinning Hardin’s analysis”). Ugo Mattei, The State, the Market, and Some Preliminary Question About the Commons (French and English Version), Mar. 18, 2011, (Dec. 14, 2017, 6 AM),

[6]70 percent of the world’s adult population holds only 3 percent of global wealth. Global Inequality(Inst. for Policy Studies 2017), (Dec. 20, 2017, 1:25 AM),

[7]Hardin, Ibid.

[8] 1245.

[9] 1244.

[10] David Feeny et al., The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later, 18 Hum. Ecology1-19 (1990), (Dec. 14, 2017, 6:15 AM),, at 12.

 [11]John Vandermeer, Tragedy of the Commons: The Meaning of the Metaphor, 60 Sci. & Soc’y Marxism & Ecology290-306 (1996), (Dec. 14, 2017, 6:35 AM),, at 305.

[12]David Harvey, The Future of the Commons, 109 Radical Hist. Rev. 101-07 (2011), (Dec. 14, 2017, 4:20 AM),, at 102.

[13] 103.

[14]Farber and Carlson characterize the tragedy of the commons as “a special case of what game theorists call a prisoner’s dilemma.” Daniel A Farber & Ann E Carlson, Cases and Materials on Environmental Law(Ninth ed. W. Academic Publ’g 2014) (in subsection entitled “The Environment as Commons”) at 21.

[15]For example, the Accord de Parisis a 2015 agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change dealing with mitigation of GHGs. See, e.g.,Jessica Durney, Defining the Paris Agreement: A Study of Executive Power and Political Commitments, 11 Carbon & Climate L. Rev.234-42 (2017), (Dec. 20, 2017, 2:50 PM),, also,Shahzad (Shaz) Ansari, Frank Wijen & Barbara Gray, Constructing a Climate Change Logic: An Institutional Perspective on the “Tragedy of the Commons”, 24 Org. Sci.1014-40 (2013), (Dec. 21, 2017, 10:50 PM),

[16]See, e.g., Juliana v. United States, 217 F. Supp. 3d 1224 (D. Or. 2016), in which plaintiffs (a group of young people aged between eight and nineteen) assert there is a very short window in which defendants could act to phase out fossil fuel exploitation and avert environmental catastrophe and seek (1) a declaration their constitutional and public trust rights have been violated and (2) an order enjoining defendants from violating those rights and directing defendants to develop a plan to reduce CO2emissions.

[17]Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III(Friedrich Engels ed., 1883), (Dec. 5, 2017, 1:35 PM),, at 567.

[18]P. Alexander Latta, “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin, 1968,98-110 (EOLSS Publications 2009) (chapter in Introduction to Sustainable Development, edited by David V J Bell and Y A Cheung) at 102. See, e.g., Joseph E Aldy & Robert N Stavins, Using the Market to Address Climate Change: Insights from Theory & Experience, 141 Dædalus45-60 (2012), (Dec. 20, 2017, 1:35 PM),

[19]Brief of William J Baumol, Robert W Crandall, Robert W Hahn, Paul L Joskow, Robert E Litan, and Richard L Schmalensee as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondents, 2006 WL 3043972 (U.S.) (Appellate Brief), Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), No. 05-1120, October 24, 2006,, at 8-9.

[20]Ironically, Hardin was a scientist: his Stanford University PhD (1941) was in microbial ecology.

[21]Garrett Hardin, Extensions of “The Tragedy of the Commons,” 280 Sci.682-83 (1998), (Dec. 14, 2017, 6:45 AM),

[22]John Foran’s Loras College Talk November 26, 2017(YouTube 2017), at 6 minutes, (Dec. 5, 2017, 12:55 PM),

[23]Such costs include, for example, reduced economic productivity, increased damages from climatic catastrophes, deteriorating health, and increased mortality. See, e.g.,Jason Bordoff, Trump vs. Obama on the Social Cost of Carbon–and Why It Matters, The Wall Street J., Nov. 15, 2017, (Dec. 5, 2017, 12:10 PM),

[24]David Roberts, Discount Rates: A Boring Thing You Should Know About (With Otters!), Grist, Sep. 24, 2012, (Nov. 21, 2017, 11:55 AM),

[25]Dana Nuccitelli, Republican Hearing Calls for a Lower Carbon Pollution Price. It Should Be Much Higher,The Guardian, Mar. 1, 2017, (Nov. 21, 2017, 11:55 AM),

[26]Eric Posner, Wrong Number: Obama’s New Climate Plan is Based on a Dubious Calculation and Falls Woefully Short, Slate, Jul. 9, 2013, (Nov. 21, 2017, 10:15 PM),


[28]Regulatory Impact Analysis for the Review of the Clean Power Plan: Proposal (United States Envtl. Prot. Agency 2017) (Office of Air and Radiation, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Research Triangle Park),, at 44.




[32]On Contact: Noam Chomsky—Part One (YouTube 2017) (Interviewed on RT America by Chris Hedges), at 22 minutes, (Dec. 4, 2017, 11:45 PM),

[33]See, e.g.,Pigouvian Taxes, Economist, Aug. 19, 2017, (Nov. 21, 2017, 11:20 PM),



[36]British Columbia’s Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax, Gov’t of British Columbia, (Nov. 21, 2017, 6:30 PM),

[37]Robert Fajber, Carbon Taxes: A Solution to the Environmental Crisis?, In Defence of Marxism, Oct. 7, 2013, (Dec. 5, 2017, 1:00 PM),

[38]British Columbia’s Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax.









[47]John Bellamy Foster, Why Ecological Revolution?, 2010 Monthly Rev., Feb. 3, 2010, (Dec. 22, 2017, 2:20 PM),

[48]Adam Booth, Capitalism, Carbon Trading and Copenhagen, In Defence of Marxism, Dec. 7, 2009, (Dec. 22, 2017, 2:25 PM),

[49]Foster, Ibid.

[50]Booth, Ibid.

[51]Adam Scow, Forget Cap-and-Trade—Require Pollution Reductions, San Francisco Chron., May 31, 2017, (Dec. 22, 2017, 2:40 PM),

[52]Tom Goldtooth: Carbon Trading Is “Fraudulent” Scheme to Privatize Air & Forests to Permit Pollution(Democracy Now! 2017) (interview by Amy Goodman, from transcript of November 17, 2017 show), (Dec. 22, 2017, 2:50 PM),

[53]Tom Goldtooth, Ibid., (interview of Isabella Zizi by Amy Goodman).

[54]Marxism 101: How Capitalism Is Killing Itself with Dr. Richard Wolff(YouTube 2016) (Interviewed by Abigail “Abby” Martin), at approximately 4 minutes, (Nov. 21, 2017, 8:05 PM),

[55]Bertell Ollman, Marxism and the Philosophy of Internal Relations; Or, How to Replace the Mysterious ‘Paradox’ with ‘Contradictions’ that Can Be Studied and Resolved, 39.1 Capital & Class7 (2015), available at

[56]Bertell Ollman, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method(Univ. of Ill. Press 2003) at 11.

[57]As a metaphor for constant change, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535 BCE – 475 BCE) asserted that no person ever steps into the same river twice.

[58]Bertell Ollman, Social and Sexual Revolution: Essays on Marx and Reich(S. End Press 1979) at 224.

[59]Bertell Ollman, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Methodat 13.

[60]David Harvey, Critical Strategies for Social Research125-32 (William K. Carroll ed., Canadian Scholars 2004) at 125-31.

[61]Bertell Ollman, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Methodat 167.


[63] 60.

[64]Harvey, The Future of the Commons, at 101.

[65]Professor Harvey, for example, distinguishes between natural resource commons and cultural and intellectual commons. 103. 

[66]Professor Ollman describes Marx’s attitude towards ideology thus:

Marx never criticizes ideology as a simple lie or claims that what it asserts is completely false. Instead, ideology is generally described as overly narrow, partial, out of focus, and/or one-sided, all of which are attributable to faulty or otherwise inappropriate abstractions of extension, level of generality, and vantage point . . . 

Putting Dialectics to Work: The Process of Abstraction in Marx’s Method,inBertell Ollman, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method, (Dec. 22, 2017, 12:15 AM),

[67]Marx subdivides problems for investigation into seven major levels of generality, each of which affects the related requisite time period for analysis: (1) unique attributes of a person or situation, (2) activities and related products (e.g.,occupation), (3) capitalism per se, including relations with bosses and products, (4) class, based on division of labor, (5) qualities people have in common as the result of their humanity, (6) qualities shared with other animals, and (7) other qualities as a part of nature. Putting Dialectics to Work: The Process of Abstraction in Marx’s Method,inBertell Ollman, Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method, (Dec. 21, 2017, 9:15 PM),

[68]Hardin’s silence on the latter is particularly puzzling because he subsequently identifies socialism as a possible antidote (the other being “the privatism of free enterprise”) to the tragedy of the commons. See, e.g.,Hardin,Extensions of “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Ibid.

[69]Benjamin Y. Fong, The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid, The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2017, (Nov. 21, 2017, 2:30 PM),

[70]Paul Fleckenstein, Climate Chaos and the Capitalist System, Socialist Worker, Sep. 11, 2017, (Nov. 21, 2017, 9:10 PM),


[72]Karl Marx at 593.

[73]Marxism 101: How Capitalism Is Killing Itself with Dr. Richard Wolff, at approximately 3 minutes, (Nov. 21, 2017, 8:25 PM).

[74]Bill Livant, The Hole in Hegel’s Bagel, inDialectics for the New Century199-99 (Bertell Ollman & Tony Smith eds., Palgrave Macmillan London 2008), (Dec. 22, 2017, 1:35 PM) (anthology on dialectics),, at 199. Livant reminds us, “The etymology of the word ‘hole’ refers not to an empty place, but to a place where something is hidden.”

And echoing Livant, my Marxist mentor NYU Professor Bertell Ollman observes that a hole is not a simple absence but an important contributor to the overall structure and meaning of all its relations; for thinking (if not for eating), the hole in Hegel’s Bagel was the most important part.

[75]Amartya Sen and Elinor Ostrom, Ibid.

[76]Ugo Mattei, Providing Direct Access to Social Justice By Renewing Common Sense: The State, the Market, and Some Preliminary Question About the Commons, UniNomade, Sep. 2, 2011, (Dec. 21, 2017, 10:05 AM),

Vol. 23 - Fall 2018

Vol. 22 - Spring 2018