June 20, 2020 - 7:00am

If capitalism is heading us for ecological catastrophe, what’s the alternative? In this weekend’s long read pick, The Drama of the Commons, Cathy Gere unpicks some of the basic assumptions that have made this question apparently so difficult for either the Left or the Right to answer.

A chorus of voices has called for a ‘Green New Deal’ to provide economic stimulus while moving society toward more sustainable ways of living. Advocates of these changes, Gere observes, tend to view environmentalism as a delivery mechanism for more socially-oriented, less selfish ways of living: what their critics call ‘watermelons’. That is, green on the outside but a bright socialist red all through the middle.

“When it comes to diagnosis, I’m with the watermelons all the way,” Gere writes. “It’s when they discuss solutions that they lose me.” According to the watermelons, she says, “A socialist world order would therefore wreak a psychological transformation, turning humanity away from self-interest and toward altruism.”

But history is littered with transformative projects that failed because humans’ natural altruism somehow didn’t materialise as hoped. She asks: how can green politics avoid falling into this trap? The search for a pragmatic approach to environmentalism, she suggests, means abandoning the vision of human nature set out in the hugely influential 1968 paper The Tragedy of the Commons, where Garrett Hardin argued that humans are incapable of holding resources in common because their natural selfishness will always result in a race to exploit and exhaust these resources.

This view she suggests, has been formative for both Left and Right, with the Right arguing on this basis that private ownership is the best way of safeguarding natural resources, and the Left arguing that the state must do so: “In a later paper, he put it succinctly: it was “either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise.””

But neither of these approaches has been successful:

Coal companies aren’t deterred from destroying the rivers and forests of Appalachia because they own the mountains whose summits they blow to smithereens. […] What do they care about environmental stewardship? 
- Cathy Gere, The Point

Meanwhile, socialist post-colonial states have attempted state stewardship, often expropriating land from indigenous peoples to do so — only to lack the resources to deliver on this aspiration. In many cases this has resulted in exactly the degradation it was meant to prevent:

In Nepal, for example, the forests were nationalized under the socialist government that came to power in the 1950s. Yet the department of forests lacked the capacity to protect or manage them. Instead of there being one owner and manager with a long-term interest in the resource, the poor monitoring of resource boundaries and corruption resulted in extensive poaching and burning. 
- Cathy Gere, The Point

There’s a third way, Gere suggests. It involves the coming-together of all the people who manage the resource to agree on how it should be shared, and to police that on an ongoing basis. Gere cites the work of Elinor Ostrom, whose research has revealed hundreds of examples of humans coming together in “careful, rule-bound management of natural resources” that successfully averts the ‘tragedy of the commons’. Examples are as diverse as water companies in the Los Angeles basin and Turkish inshore fishing rights.

Gere argues that the strength of Ostrom’s work lies in its grounding rather than any elevated belief about human altruism. What’s needed is a pragmatic recognition of the role played by self-interest in helping humans to agree on mutually beneficial self-restraint when managing resources:

The portrait of human nature that emerges from work on commons governance is that of a species fundamentally self-interested, incorrigibly social and perfectly capable—under the right conditions—of rational, bottom-up stewardship of commonly owned resources.
- Cathy Gere, The Point

It’s both less uplifting than grand visions of total social transformation, and yet somehow (because more believable) also infinitely more cheering.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.