With all eyes on #COP26 I've seen the failure to regulate effectively CO2 emissions referred to as "tragedy of the commons" evoking Garret Hardin's (in)famous 1968 article of the same title. But don't do this.

I know it's suggestive. Because it seems to be pretty much the situation Hardin described: privatized gains and shared losses provide a strong incentive to overuse a resource, here the amount of CO2 that can be released in the atmosphere, to the point where the resource collapses and "brings ruin to all."

However, to call this the tragedy of the commons is completely misleading because Hardin's article was so deeply flawed.

First, commons are communal institutions to manage a shared resource for long-term use by its members (Elinor Ostrom won a (kind of) Nobel Price in Economics for showing this). What Hardin describes is the lack of a commons, not the failure of the commons. He makes this error strategically because he then proposes two solutions, state intervention or privatization.

Hence, the COP26 reveals is the failure to create institutions of shared stewardship, but there is no alternative because there is no "superstate" to intervene and the atmosphere has so far resisted attempts at privatization (though we might be getting there).

Hardin himself corrected his article 25 years laters, narrowing it half-heartedly to "The tragedy of the unmanaged commons" which makes as much sense as speaking of 'leaderless hierarchy' as commons are about communal management as much as hierarchies are about creating leaders.

Second, Hardin was a white supremacist. His original article was really about population control, the (non-existent) villagers were a metaphor for people in developing countries having too many children. He used his reputation as a biologist to advocate deeply inhumane positions. The Southern Poverty Law Center has extensive documentation on Hardin.

Matteo Mildenberger, Associate Prof Political Science UCSB, explained this is a great Twitter thread in 2019.

And then there is also Nijhuis, Michelle. 2021. "The Tragedy of the Commons Is a False and Dangerous Myth." Aeon. 2021.

If you want to hear Hardin directly, here's a 1990 video interview where he lays out his view on the relationship between overpopulation and the tragedy of the commons.