The dangers of reactionary ecology

Hardin's lifeboat
Hardin's lifeboat

Influential metaphors for understanding the environment serve as a bridge between traditional conservatism and outright ecofascism.

Submitted by Out of the Woods on June 30, 2014

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.1

There are numerous lines of criticism here.2 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.3 Hardin subsequently conceded his argument only applied to unmanaged commons rather than commons per se, significantly narrowing its scope.4 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.5 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.6 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.7

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.8 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.9 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.10

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.11 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.

Lifeboat ethics

The supposed problems of the tragedy of the commons and exponential population growth lead Hardin to develop a highly influential moral theory: lifeboat ethics.12 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 parties13

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.

Anthropocene reaction

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.”14 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,15 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.”16 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.17

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’.18 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.

  • 1Garrett Hardin (1968), The tragedy of the commons.
  • 2For instance, see Ian Angus, The myth of the tragedy of the commons.
  • 3But see George Caffentzis, The future of the commons, which argues not all commons are anti-capitalist.
  • 4“To judge from the critical literature, the weightiest mistake in my synthesizing paper was the omission of the modifying adjective ‘unmanaged.’” Garrett Hardin (1998), The tragedy of the commons – extension.
  • 5 It’s possible they might be competitively breeding cattle for some other reason, say, ritual slaughter. But the emphasis Hardin puts on rational utility-maximisation strongly suggests they’re producing cattle as commodities for sale in the market.
  • 6Which is what James O’Connor calls the second contradiction.
  • 7 World Bank economists were questioning Hardin’s orthodox view of commons even before Ostrom’s book appeared, but World Bank policy remained steadfastly committed to privatisation and enclosure. This is not to say that climate change isn’t a major collective action problem within capitalist social relations, along the lines of Hardin’s tragedy. Rather this critique suggests the tragedy has its roots in historically specific social relations, and not in a timeless rationality trap where ‘the alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate.’
  • 8Malthus is known today primarily for his population predictions which treated human misery as an unavoidable historical result. While predicting inevitable suffering in theory, he actively advocated for avoidable suffering by opposing social policy that would aid the poor and advocating measures that would require greater dependence on markets for subsistence. See Michael Perelman, The invention of capitalism: classical political economy and the secret history of primitive accumulation, pp310-315.
  • 9Amartya Sen (1990), Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation, Oxford University Press.
  • 10Urbanisation also reflects the forcible separation of the rural population from the land via enclosures and colonialism, but only really took off once urban mortality fell.
  • 11See Tim Dyson (2010), Population and development: the demographic transition, Zed Books.
  • 12Garrett Hardin (1974), Lifeboat ethics: the case against helping the poor.
  • 13Nina Power, Rainy fascism island.
  • 14Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A thousand plateaus, p.215.
  • 15“‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, and all its variant forms, represents a very specific brand of contemporary ideology; that of austerity nostalgia. (…) it calls on the viewer to trust the judgment of government, submit to its authority (in your best interest)” – Spitzenprodukte, Viva Miuccia! Cursory notes on the political t-shirt.
  • 16 Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A thousand plateaus, p.216.
  • 17 For example, there is evidence that mainstream security discourse fuels far right terrorism: Arun Kundnani, Blind spot: security narratives and far-right violence in Europe.
  • 18Of course what actually makes Britain ‘Great’ is that it’s larger than ‘petit Bretagne’ across the water, a fact of geography that surely brings a lump to patriotic throats! With regard to micropolitics, we should also heed Michael Rosen’s words: “Fascism arrives as your friend. It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were, clear out the venal and the corrupt, remove anything you feel is unlike you...”


Chilli Sauce

10 years ago

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Submitted by Chilli Sauce on June 30, 2014

the tragedy of the commons,

I actually want to say thanks for tackling this. I studied history and I cannot tell you how many times my professors trotted out the old "TOTC" as if it was some basic truism not even worthy of explanation. Ah, it pissed me off, especially because it's so damn easy undermine.

I also appreciate the point that just because certain strains of conservatism share a number of beliefs with fascism, it doesn't make those conservatives - or conservatism generally - fascist. This is a point also often lost in discussions of history as well as those within modern radical political circles.

Anyway, good blog all around (as always)


10 years ago

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Submitted by ajjohnstone on July 1, 2014

Not so much about the Tragedy of the Commons but related to the doom-seekers.


10 years ago

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Submitted by Ablokeimet on July 1, 2014

Excellent article, which advanced my thinking on a few fronts. I'd like to make a comment about Note 10, however:

Urbanisation also reflects the forcible separation of the rural population from the land via enclosures and colonialism, but only really took off once urban mortality fell.

Is it correct to say that urbanisation only took off once urban mortality fell? Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England described phenomenally deadly conditions in English towns and I've heard that at one stage in the early 19th Century, the average life expectancy in Manchester was 19.

My guess is that the death rates in the towns of England spurred the development of modern plumbing and sewage - and that this, because of its massive public health effects, was rapidly introduced to cities of advanced countries everywhere. Urbanisation was the product of both industrialisation under capitalism, which provided the pull factor, and enclosure, which provided the push. The fall in urban mortality reduced a barrier to urbanisation, but was not a driver.

Joseph Kay

10 years ago

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Submitted by Joseph Kay on July 1, 2014

I think the argument is that there was net migration to the towns long before urbanisation took off. Rural births were >2, and land couldn't be divided every generation, so people moved to the towns. However, the towns remained population sinks with high mortality until disease started to come under control.

That reflected 'modern understandings of disease', but probably also the fact labour power not land had become the principal source of wealth. So the state had both the means (enlightenment medicine) and motive (preservation of labour force) to develop public health measures.

So if life expectancy was only 19 in Manchester, urban population couldn't really have taken off as people would have been dying within a few years of arrival.* I would guess that despite enclosures, vagrancy laws etc, the rural-urban population ratio only began to skew heavily in favour of the towns once urban mortality fell, though I don't have any figures to hand.

* Edit: actually this probably reflects high infant mortality pulling down the average life expectancy. But still, it suggests high urban mortality, which is a barrIer to the accumulation of the urban population.

fingers malone

10 years ago

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Submitted by fingers malone on July 1, 2014

Yeah it's massive infant mortality more than adults arriving from the countryside and then dying. But yes for years urbanisation and industrialisation relied on continual immigration from the countryside as the death rate was higher than the sustainable level.

In 1880 56% of the UK population lived in urban areas, based on a quick look online.


10 years ago

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Submitted by onix on July 2, 2014

I don't know what is more naive -- racism and eugenics, or the belief that 9B people will one day have the same standard of living of the US.


10 years ago

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Submitted by factvalue on July 3, 2014

The world average number of babies born per woman has gone from 5 to 2.5 and falling over the past 50 years, including a mean of 2.25 in Bangladesh and a mode of 2 in Brazil, Vietnam and India . Good article, though by calling the Swedish Central Bank Prize in Economics the 'Nobel' Prize you're making the bastards look respectable.


9 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by boomerang on August 12, 2014

I love your blog, but it's been quite a while since I've read your posts. I do intend to catch up soon. But anyways, I want to share the latest with you:

The study concerns the large deposits of methane (CH4) — a greenhouse gas over twenty times more potent than CO2 — known to be buried beneath the Arctic. Stockholm University researchers found that some of that methane is leaking, and even making it to the ocean’s surface. ...

“Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked,” he told me. What alarmed him was that ”the methane bubbles were reaching the surface. That was something new in my survey of methane bubbles,” he [climate scientist Dr. Box] said.

Joseph Kay

9 years 11 months ago

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Submitted by Joseph Kay on August 17, 2014

Yeah, arctic methane, and particularly those Siberian methane craters, are pretty scary. That said, (climate scientist) David Archer argues that fossil fuels are still orders of magnitude more important:


4 years 8 months ago

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Submitted by djeebudoff on November 29, 2019