We have so far introduced the ideas of thinkers we find useful, such as Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of technology, and James O’Connor’s notion of the second contradiction. Here we want to look at how ecological ideas can be deployed to support deeply reactionary politics. We will do this with a critical introduction to the oft-cited, though less often read, biologist Garrett Hardin.
The tragedy of capital
Hardin’s most famous and influential concept is the tragedy of the commons, a collective action problem posited to lead all common resources to inevitable ruin. He first set the problem out in his 1968 essay of the same name:
The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. (…)As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” (…)the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
There are numerous lines of criticism here.
First of all, despite being published in Science, Hardin doesn’t present any actual evidence, only a thought experiment. Subsequently, in 1990, Elinor Ostrom published ‘Governing the commons’, a work that won her a Nobel Prize in economics for showing that commons do not necessarily tend to mutual ruin.
Hardin subsequently conceded his argument only applied to unmanaged commons rather than commons per se, significantly narrowing its scope.
However, the tragedy of the commons is still a staple of environmental ethics and ecological economics. It is often cited uncritically in introductory climate science texts.
More importantly, Hardin’s argument presupposes the very relations it posits as the cure. Hardin assumes each herdsman seeks to keep as many cattle as possible. These herdsmen are therefore not subsistence producers, producing for their own consumption, but are producing for others. Furthermore, each of them is doing so competitively: these herdsmen are producing commodities for the market.
These herdsmen are each rational utility-maximising agents, with no social bonds, norms, or relations with one another despite sharing a pastoral commons. Finally, for there to be a market for an ever-larger number of cattle, others elsewhere must lack access to commons from which they could provide themselves with cattle. In other words, Hardin’s commons presupposes a an isolated commons in a sea of enclosure.
So Hardin presupposes competitive production for the market under conditions of generalised commodity exchange and enclosure undertaken by rational utility-maximising agents. In other words, he presupposes the historically specific relations of capitalism, relations which were, in fact, only established following the widespread enclosure and privatisation of commons. Hardin’s tragedy would be better called the tragedy of capital, for it shows only how capitalist relations of competitive production, without limit, for the market tend to undermine the conditions of production.
Thus Hardin’s argument is historically false, theoretically circular, and empirically dubious. It nonetheless plays an important ideological role in rationalising more privatisation, enclosure, and market competition as the solution to the problems caused by privatisation, enclosure, and market competition.
Population is not the problem
Despite its influence on environmental economics, Hardin’s primary concern throughout his work was population growth, to counter which he promoted eugenics. His 1968 piece declared that “the freedom to breed is intolerable” and asked “how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement?” His answer was coercion:
Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment.
He cites Thomas Malthus, the 18th century moralist and Reverend, but little on contemporary demography. Malthus claimed that population would grow exponentially, while food production would only grow linearly. This would make hunger and misery permanent and insoluble features of human society, since population would always tend to outstrip available food.
Hardin did his PhD in microbiology. Population studies of bacteria are a core part of any microbiologist’s training. Indeed, bacteria will reproduce near-exponentially, doubling in number each generation until their growth is checked by a limiting factor, such as exhaustion of nutrients.
Hardin seems to rely on Malthus’ morality tale and his microbiologist’s common sense, without bothering to check whether human populations actually grow until checked by famine. Fortunately, they do not. Today, the countries where the population is stable or declining are not ones where there is famine, and countries where there are famines often have growing populations. Furthermore, as Amartya Sen has shown, recent famines have not been caused by a lack of food, but a lack of purchasing power to buy food.
Rather than growing exponentially until checked by famine, like bacteria, human population growth tends to follow a sigmoid (S-shaped) curve.
Human population is stable whenever the birth rate equals the death rate. If the stabilisation of population is caused by famine, it would mean the death rate rises to match the birth rate. In fact, both birth and death rates fall. Before the advent of modern medicine, birth rates and death rates were high, towns were disease-ridden population sinks, and the population was therefore predominantly young and rural. With the advent of modern understandings of disease, a series of changes lead to falling death rates, falling birth rates, urbanisation, and an aging population. This is known as the demographic transition.
The seemingly exponential growth observed by Malthus was in fact the demographic transition between the high birth/death equilibrium to the low birth/death equilibrium. This transition seems to follow a more or less universal pattern, generating a chain of positive feedbacks once it begins.
The most developed countries began this transition several centuries ago and are now mostly at the higher, older, urban equilibrium (population decline is even a concern in some places). Many less developed countries are not yet at the higher equilibrium, have younger, more rural populations, and are still experiencing rapid population growth. UN demographers expect the world population to stabilise somewhere in the 9 billion region.
Writing in 1798, Malthus mistook the rapid growth phase of a sigmoid curve for an exponential one. In fact, Malthus’ main thrust was not to advance a theory of human ecology, but to make a political attack on the poor laws and the idea of raising workers’ wages. Hardin, who reaffirmed his thesis as recently as 1998, is at least as conservative as Malthus, and either less smart or less intellectually honest. Once again, evidence for his central claim is in short supply, and in the 200 years since Malthus, much counter-evidence has accumulated.
The supposed problems of the tragedy of the commons and exponential population growth lead Hardin to develop a highly influential moral theory: lifeboat ethics.
His metaphor was chosen to counter that favoured by more progressive ecologists, spaceship Earth. There is no world government, Hardin points out, and you can’t have a spaceship without a captain (apparently). Rather every nation is a lifeboat. Immigrants want to get into the lifeboat, outbreed the inhabitants, and destroy civilisation. The subtitle of his essay was ‘the case against helping the poor’. The racist, patriarchal subtext is barely veiled either.
Having established his metaphor, Hardin then proceeds as if nation-states really were crowded lifeboats as opposed to say, vast land masses covering a third of the Earth’s surface. The major premise for his argument is again Malthusian population growth, and the minor premise is the tragedy of the commons. As these don’t stand up to scrutiny, his case for lifeboat ethics crumbles. But reaction doesn’t run on reason, and the metaphor of the embattled lifeboat has taken up residence throughout the political mainstream:
It is an old story—“we” are running out of room, there are too many people here already, resources are “scarce.” This is not a position confined to the centre-right and far right of course, as it is also the “logic” of all the major parties
Hardin purports to be a sober realist, the brave breaker of bad news: keep the immigrants out. Sterilise profligate breeders. Use famine to depopulate Africa (and keep the beaches pristine!). Hey, don’t shoot the messenger, just telling it how it is! But it’s a strange realist who just assumes human society is analogous to bacteria without bothering to check – especially when the consequences of this analogy approach genocide. This is rather an early case of the familiar faux realism of ‘there is no alternative’, which seeks to put its reactionary politics beyond question by invoking ‘reality’, where reality is an evidence-free thought experiment.
Hardin is quite often, and quite understandably, seen as basically fascist, invoking ecological limits to promote an eugenic agenda hostile to immigration and womens bodily autonomy. Is Hardin a fascist? What seems to be lacking is ‘palingenetic ultranationalism’ – a notion radical rebirth of the nation. Hardin’s eugenics and anti-immigration stance are common to both conservatives and fascists. Churchill as well as Hitler admired eugenics, nationalism, and empire.
Hardin, however, seems to adopt the world-weary resignation of Cold War ‘realist’ conservatism (‘it’s not ideal, but it’s the least worst option’) rather than the ultranationalism of rebirth favoured by fascists. Hardin is content to survive on his lifeboat, so long as those in the water know their place, whereas fascists promise to raise the wreck, restore its former glory, and sail it again – if only the deadweight can first be thrown overboard.
But this considers fascism only at the macropolitical level, the broad aggregate of a national rebirth. However, “what makes fascism dangerous is its molecular or micropolitical power, for it is a mass movement: a cancerous body rather than a totalitarian organism.”
Hardin’s desire to cleanse away the dirtiness of coercion by repeating it over and over finds contemporary expression in a particularly cancerous meme: austerity nostalgia,
and his lifeboat ethics are hardly a fringe, far right phenomenon – and are all the more dangerous for it.
This is why Deleuze and Guattari write that “the motto of domestic policymakers might be: a macropolitics of society by and for a micropolitics of insecurity.”
The population is bound to the state through the continuous production insecurity and anxiety: terrorist Muslims, benefits scroungers – and of course immigrants swamping our precious national lifeboat. The bogeymen might be phantoms but the insecurity they produce is real. The recent gains for the far right in Europe have exploited this phenomenon but they did not create it.
The reactionary right of the likes of UKIP have thus far nailed their colours to climate change denialism (and the fossil fuel finance this attracts). This may not be such a bad thing: do we really want to see UKIP’s populism merge with Hardin’s reactionary ecology? The specious notion of ‘Blitz spirit’ demonstrates how disaster communities can be coded as nationally specific – indeed, as a rebirth of ‘what makes Britain great’.
Lifeboat ethics and austerity nostalgia are already a toxic mix which thoroughly saturates official politics. Hardin’s dismal ecology forms the first draft of the politics of Anthropocene reaction. As the climate continues to deteriorate, we will likely see revised drafts of this reactionary politics from across the political spectrum.