The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Fortune of the Commons

There is a theory, called, “the tragedy of the commons” that if no one owns something, it will be overused.

You can see this in pollution. No one owns the air, so assholes over-pollute it because they get the profits and bear only a tiny part of the costs. When I was young the BC coasts had tons of clam and oyster beds. In the 90s people with no connection to local communities (Vietnamese) came along and stripped them clean. Made a lot of money, but destroyed most of the beds.

The problem is that these aren’t “commons”.

Commons are resources a community or group in the community manages together. The air and oyster beds weren’t managed.

The commons, in England and elsewhere, lasted for well over a 1,000 years. They were managed well, were over 90% as productive as enclosed fields and produced a far better standard of living for more people than enclosed fields, which were associated with throwing people off the land they had lived on for over a thousand years, so they could work over 80 hours a week in factories with horrific rates of dismemberment, in cities rife with disease where people died far younger and were ill far more often.

There is no tragedy of the commons.

What we call commons, aren’t. To be a commons, a group of people which benefit more from the continued existence of something than its destruction or degradation have to be charge in it. No short-termers or outsiders (people who don’t need it to continue in their lifetime and beyond) need apply. In the terms of Carse’s “Finite and Infinite Games” no one playing a finite game can ever be allowed close to a commons.


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The tragedy of the commons is that people who didn’t benefit from them continuing used the power of the state to break them up (enclose) them for their private profit, thus improverishing millions of people.

The modern tragedy of shared resources (which are NOT commons) is that the people in charge of them are playing finite games. My friend Stirling Newberry called this the death-bet. Simply put, the people fucking the world up with massive pollution and over-using resources, will be dead when the bet comes due. Nancy Pelosi, clinging grimly to power, is 80 years old.

The people you want in charge are people who are young and people who care about their great-grandchildren. Or, in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) phrase, for the next seven generations.

As for old people, the problem is twofold: first they think their money will help their kids, second they don’t /really/ care about their children or grandchildren. (Based on the behaviour I see, I assume most Americans don’t actually care much about their kids, especially once they’re adults. They scream that they do, but their actions show otherwise.)

They also have to be, for types of commons which are not global, locals, so that they can’t leave when things go bad. People who aren’t committed to the local area can’t be in charge of the long-term sustainability of a local area.

Put crudely, people who don’t have to eat where they shit can’t be in charge of anything.

Because this isn’t always possible, with global resources, you need to put people in artificial boxes. They need to experience the consequences of their failures. If they have both authority and power to act, after a certain time in office (and when out of office for a certain amount of time, so they don’t dodge their failures) they need to eat their own dogfood, to use the business expression. Make them live in the place with the worst pollution. If there are people there without a mask, then they don’t get to have one either. Make them drink the water. Make them eat the fish from the river.

This sort of personal responsibility, if combined with actual power, will clear problems up fast. If you want to make it really potent, give them a bit of time then make their non-adult children do the same.

In India there is a longstanding problem, not primarily environmental, but similiar, called manual scavenging. Simply put, untouchable (Dalit) caste members clean sewers and so on manually. No other jobs are available to them.

If you simply made it so that the governor and police chief and Prime Minister all had to do a day of manual scavenging every week till there was no manual scavenging (or so close to none as to unmeasurable) I guarantee this problem would be solved so fast your head would spin.

As for heads of industry, making the Shell CEO and every executive and all major shareholders eat fish from the Gulf oil spill for a year would be laudatory.

No wealth or power without responsibility for results. None. No scapegoats. If you have power, you’re in charge, no saying someone is responsible without giving them necessary authority.

The Ganges, in India, is horribly polluted and Indian politicians constantly wail, promise to do something and do nothing. Make them drink it every day, in front of witnesses, and the problem will resolve itself. (Sure, there can be some time lag. But perhaps make them drink one glass at the start of their term of office. Concentrate the mind a bit.)

No one gets to be in charge of anything unless they are affected by the results of their actions. Nothing.

This may seem similar to “Skin in the Game” by Taleb, but it is an ancient idea. Even in modern thinking, before Taleb, Jared Diamond made the same point in his book Collapse. But the idea is as old as civilization, and I am quite sure older.

As for the generational altruism idea, the ancient Greek saying was “a society is great when old men plant trees in whose shades they will never sit.”

We know all this, but in the modern era bunch of people who were either fools or evil or both, starting with Adam Smith (who was, admittedly, not quite as bad as his idea’s misuse would lead one to believe), created the idea that governing the world based on short term greed would lead to good results.

It did, for some people, and for a larger group for a while (that while is coming to an end.) It was based on genocide, enclosure (aka the violent removal of property rights from peasants) and the conquest of 70%+ of the world.

Or, if  you want another authority, Keynes,

Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.

Put that way, it’s pretty obviously nonsense.

The Tragedy of the Commons is that we don’t have properly constituted Commons, that is all.





The Beauty of the Future


Why People Bully & A Better Way


  1. About five years ago I proposed a twenty-first century variation of Pascal’s Wager: It’s not a question, if I am wrong, if the climate is not changing, the world not warming to in-habitability in my grand-childrens’ and sooner than I care to think great-grandchildren’s generation, I don’t lose a bloody damned thing.  If you, the denier, are wrong, we all lose… our grand-children and great-grandchildren lose, the only atmosphere we know of we can live in.

    End of the road, way of the dinosaurs… mass extinction. 

    Do you want to take that bet?

    If I’m wrong, I lose something but I forget what it is. And don’t give a shit. 

    If you’re wrong, we lose the planet and all of our grandkids die.

    Do you want to take that bet?

  2. Dan Lynch

    I have never set foot in Switzerland, so can’t comment on how well their local management of undeveloped land works. But I can’t see it working in the U.S..

    First, the Swiss model assumes a belief in democracy — that people get to vote on things and that everyone agrees to abide by the vote. Many Americans, especially in the rural West, simply do not have that ethos. Instead, they believe in “individual rights” and “property rights.” “This is my property, nobody can tell me what to do with it. The U.S. is a republic, not a democracy.” And so on.

    Second, in fact the rural West does have a great deal of local control over undeveloped resources, even though those resources may be owned by the Federal government. And locals typically do have a long term interest — their grazing leases on public land are typically renewed forever and ever, and can be bought or sold just like private property. And yet Western ranchers have had a terrible impact on the environment, wiping out entire species, spreading non-indigenous weeds, trampling delicate wetlands, and so on.

    As for reducing grazing and logging to sustainable levels, it’s debatable what is sustainable. All grazing has an impact on the environment, especially in the arid West. All logging has an impact on environment. How many wolves and bears are remaining in Switzerland? Less grazing and logging are better, but still have an impact. It’s still not pre-European wilderness where the buffalo roam, OK?

    Even though Western ranchers and loggers usually do have a long term investment in the local environment, they view the land as something to make a buck from. If you manage the forest as a tree farm to maximize long term yield, that’s far short of an old growth forest. If you manage grassland as a pasture to maximize long term cattle production, that’s still not a healthy prairie where the buffalo roam. The bottom line is capitalism provides an incentive to maximize profit, not to maximize the environment. The buffalo and the old growth trees don’t have a vote.

    That said, ranchers and loggers are a tiny minority in Western states, yet they pretty much control state government. Why? Because they have time and money. State legislatures convene in the winter, when farmers and ranchers don’t have to work, so it is no problem for farmers and ranchers to run for state office. Teachers and factory workers can’t quit their jobs to go serve in the legislature (it does not pay much). The Idaho Senate has long been nicknamed “Sirloin Row” because it is dominated by wealthy ranchers.

    As a result, we have open range laws, which the majority of the public do not like. If we were a true democracy and had public referendums on policy like the Swiss, the open range laws would be overturned, grazing leases on public land would be cancelled, and clearcutting on public land would screech to a halt. Instead, we have a fake democracy where we only get to vote on which millionaire will represent us.

  3. GlassHammer

    “Based on the behaviour I see, I assume most Americans don’t actually care much about their kids, especially once they’re adults.” – Ian

    As an American who has to tolerate the Anger and Insults of family members who I have prohibited from seeing my kids because they insist on having unsafe habits during a pandemic, I can confirm this.

    The best part is that each of these angry and insult prone family members have an underlying condition (sometimes more than one) that would make COVID-19 a death sentence. (Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and more)

    Oh and all of these family members insist they are Godly men and women. (And yes they went to church in person month after month until this November.)

    Then Holidays aren’t very cheerful.

  4. nihil obstet

    It all keeps coming back to “We must have democracy.” That’s about fighting propaganda, the first step towards changing our society and how it’s governed. Otherwise, all you can do is believe that we’re doomed and our children with us.

  5. Zachary Smith

    The problem is that these aren’t “commons”.

    In his original essay Garrett Hardin made a different assumption – that the atmosphere and oceans were indeed part of the “Commons”.

    A woman named Elinor Ostrom wrote on the subject of the Commons, and her thoughts diverged somewhat from those of Hardin. A commentary on the two of them concludes that “scale” really does matter.

    A few dozen inhabitants of a village who are sharing resources can keep close watch on the situation. If their affairs are managed correctly, the resources are divided fairly and the Commons can be kept in good shape indefinitely. When a polluter a thousand miles away is dumping radioactivity into the ocean, or megatons of coal ash and CO2 into the air, a different problem arises.

    Regulation – either on the village level or globally, is the key. But in a society where individuals are taught that Me/Me/Me is all that matters, and that they ought to be able to do anything they please whenever and wherever they feel like it, regulation becomes a big problem. Speaking of bad jokes, the UN has been a total failure in every way – that’s how the US of A designed it. So there is currently zero global management of the Air and Oceans.

    Think of all the people who refuse to wear masks in the current pandemic, and all the opportunistic authority figures who back them to the hilt. The Greed Is Good theology doesn’t work very well with any kind of “Commons”. Neither does the notion that MY nation is Exceptional, and the rules don’t apply to us.

  6. Hugh

    For me, property is a kind of myth, a temporary permit to use or abuse a plot of land. I say this because we are temporary. We try to stretch out our connection, our ownership of land by saying things like “They’ve been on that land for THREE generations.” But the original “owner” is usually long gone and the total time is usually less than a hundred years. In Europe, there are a few families which can trace their ownership back hundreds of years. But A) these aren’t many and B) it’s not clear how direct or genetically linked they actually are to the original family owners. And beyond a name and maybe a birth and death date, what does anyone really know about these people? What is the connection?

    Corporations can “live” a lot longer than a person, but many don’t. And do any of us really care? Aren’t we much more interested in what they did with and to the land? Isn’t this always the case? I don’t care that your great grandparents bought some land somewhere. What did they do to it? If through some fluke it’s still in your family, what are you doing to it?

    It all seems so absurd. A family will rent a house or piece of land for 20 or 30 years from a bank while they are making payments on it, and as long as they are paying taxes on it, own it for another ten or twenty, again as long as they are paying their taxes, and then they move to assisted living or the kids sell it when they die. Yet even as home ownership, the family farm, etc, are disappearing, we treat “ownership” of land as eternal and hallowed. It’s not. If you “own” land, look at your age and consider how many more years your eternal ownership of it is likely to last.

    It just might make looking at things in terms of the commons more attractive if we start realizing how contingent and temporary our idea of ownership is.

  7. nihil obstet

    The concept of owning property beyond personal property is relatively recent. The great landowners of previous ages held “their” land at the grant of the sovereign, who must be helped upon demand. That’s why successful charges of treason resulted in the ruler’s confiscation of the land rather than its passing to any of the traitor’s heirs. In the U.S. leasehold of 100 years is virtually non-existent, but I think is relatively common in Europe.

  8. Plague Species

    The people you want in charge are people who are young and people who care about their great-grandchildren.

    Good luck with that. You’ll be hard-pressed to find that profile these days. Gates and Jobs, coupled with NeoLiberalism, ensured, and continue to ensure, this profile NEVER manifests in young people. Silicon Valley is responsible for shaping the youth, or at least the youth in the West but it’s influence extends well-beyond the West in the sense Asian countries have emulated Silicon Valley and are following its lead.

    These kids, and each generation is worse than the previous, are being taught to not value life, be it their life or any life. They are psychically stunted. Emotional retards. They can’t handle anything. Brought to us by Silicon Valley.

  9. Stirling S Newberry

    The “tragedy of the commons” comes up when the land will produce something for a very short period of time more than the commons produces. For example: trees. There are no trees in Britain compared to what there could be. One can compare the commons with the Royal Navy and see why: the forests are better spent on looting, for a short time. To grow you have to have pillaging of some of the commons – the next industrial revolution depends on it.

    This leads me to propose an alternative: pillage the short term commons provide you actually compensating the losers. Losers generally don’t get compensated anywhere close to the actual value. This will mean that you mine the valuable resources and leave the rest (the major part) alone. It needs a review board that doesn’t have (mostly) any interest. (Remember: you need some corruption.)

    It is a dirty job and many ache to be the winner.

  10. Jan Wiklund

    Elinor Ostrom got the false Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for demonstrating what you say, Ian. It is written in her book Governing the commons, where she also denounced the idea about “the tragedy”. See

  11. Hugh

    To file under news of the irrelevant:

    “a society is great when old men plant trees in whose shades they will never sit.”

    Perhaps it’s that most of the quotes I come across actually weren’t said by the people to whom they are attributed. Or maybe this seems like a curiously unClassical Greek thing to say. Anyway, I looked it up and found an article at quoteinvestigator.

    The earliest approximation to it they found was from Cicero quoting the Roman comic poet and probable slave Caecilius Statius who died in 166 B.C.: “serit arbores, quae alteri saeclo prosint” he plants trees that will benefit another age.

    But it is not until 1866, (three years before he was excommunicated and left the Catholic church) that the French preacher and theologian Hyacinthe Loyson comes closest to the modern quote in a sermon (first published in 1868):

    “Ces arbres qu’il plante et à l’ombre desquels il ne s’assoira pas, il les aime pour eux-mêmes et pour ses enfants, et pour les enfants de ses enfants, sur qui s’étendront leurs rameaux.”

    These plants which he plants, and in whose shade he will not sit, he loves them for themselves and for his children and the children of his children, over whom they will extend their branches.

    Roger Pearse at his website places its ancient origin even later saying, “Ronald Reagan uses it in 1983.  But it seems to become a “Greek proverb” only in the hands of US congressmen in 1993.”

  12. Hugh

    Ooops, my typing. That should read, The trees which he plants,,,

  13. Ten Bears

    World didn’t exist, Hugh, before Saint Ronald of Ray-Gun.

    Flat too.

    Have to hunt around for it, but I’m pretty sure I recently came across a variation of ‘planting trees we’ll never sit the shade’ in a collection of two thousand year (or more) old Chinese proverbs.

    Or maybe it was Jewish ascetics.

    Juan Matus.

  14. Hugh

    A commenter YMD at the Pearse site did write,

    “The quote calls to mind the Rabbinic tale related by R. Jonathan (c. 4th c) regarding the sage Honi (bTaanit 23a) who saw an elderly man planting a carob tree and queried him if he thought he’d live to see it’s fruit. The man replied that I was born (lit. found) into a world with a carob tree; just as my fathers’ planted for me, I am planting for my sons.”

    The Taanit 23a thing is a Talmudic reference. Honi was apparently a rainmaker.

  15. Joan

    I was reminded of “He who plants trees loves others besides himself.” which is apparently by Thomas Fuller.

    Otherwise I agree with Ian’s article and a lot of what Dan had to say.

  16. Hugh

    Last citation from quoteinvestigator:

    In November 1992 a U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Education and Health convened a meeting to discuss teenage pregnancy. A message for the record was submitted by Joycelyn Elders who at that time was the Director of the Arkansas Department of Health. She later became the U.S. Surgeon General. Her message included a version of the adage:

    “I would like to close with my favorite saying which I stole from someone so long ago that I’ve have forgotten who I borrowed it from: A society grows great when old men plant trees under whose shade they know they’ll never sit.”

  17. Plague Species

    Problem with that is, so many opportunists are taking a huge dump on the planet under the aegis of planting tress. Instead of a forest, they’re leaving an unlivable cesspool for their progeny if they have any and for everyone else’s progeny if they don’t have their own. The Green New Deal, whatever it will ultimately be specifically and whenever it comes about if ever, will be a shining example of this. It already is, in effect. Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans was the reveal. Green Anything equals Growth. Growth is the purview of Wall Street. It’s the religion of Wall Street. Growth equals death of the planet. Growth usurps everything no matter how genuine the original intent. Most people won’t even consider this, therefore, the living planet will be no more. Intelligent people refuse to acknowledge this. They instead prefer to put their head in the sand and dream of unicorns.

  18. don

    meanwhile, in the former amazon rain forest …

  19. don

    I Hear an Army
    James Joyce – 1882-1941

    I hear an army charging upon the land,
    And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:
    Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
    Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.

    They cry unto the night their battle-name:
    I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.
    They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
    Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.

    They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:
    They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.
    My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
    My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?

  20. don

    Jerusalem [“And did those feet in ancient time”]

    By William Blake

    And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon England’s mountains green:
    And was the holy Lamb of God,
    On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

    And did the Countenance Divine,
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here,
    Among these dark Satanic Mills?

    Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
    Bring me my arrows of desire:
    Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
    Bring me my Chariot of fire!

    I will not cease from Mental Fight,
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
    Till we have built Jerusalem,
    In England’s green & pleasant Land.

    Source: Preface to Milton a Poem. (1810)

  21. don

    (“i think i’m all done for now”)

  22. Hugh

    If the internet is a commons, what does that say about Big Tech and Silicon Valley?

  23. Jessica

    Another form of this is that all business and social media platforms should be non-profit producer or user coops. This would dis-enclose what monopolists have enclosed and turn it into commons.

  24. Jessica

    “If the internet is a commons, what does that say about Big Tech and Silicon Valley?”
    If the internet were a commons, Big Tech and Silicon Valley would not exist. They do, therefore the internet is not a commons. We must make it one.
    By the way, the web as it currently exists is only a highly flawed card catalog for what the universal library that it could and should be.

  25. tim

    The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong

  26. Zachary Smith

    Thanks for the Scientific American link. I knew the publication had become a shadow of itself, but wasn’t aware till now it had sunk to this level. I will never buy another subscription, and will be mighty leery of any copies I might pick up on the “free” table.

    I doubt if Matto Mildenberger has read a single one of Hardin’s books, and if he did, it’s perfectly clear he didn’t understand what he was seeing. My own complete collection of Hardin’s published books is one of my treasures.

    At the end of his life Garrett Hardin’s health was failing, and he lost a great deal of the mental acuity he’d had previously. IMO it’s not fair to condemn a person’s life work for things said or written as his/her brain begins to falter. Most very elderly scientists ought to pack it in, but some can’t manage to do that.

  27. Ten Bears

    And what, exactly, “tim”, does that have to do with the price of tea in China?

    Drink some more fool-aid …

  28. someofparts

    “In the U.S. leasehold of 100 years is virtually non-existent”

    In my state, the power company owns extensive amounts of land around our many beautiful lakes. Citizens who build cabins on any of those properties get 100-year leases. The state stopped allowing outright ownership of the land by regular folks because a corrupt VP of Real Estate at the power company embezzled a fortune selling lake-front real estate to developers on the cheap and pocketing the kickbacks.

  29. Plague Species

    COVFEFE-45 related statistics should be the commons. The public has a right to any and all data related to this disease and so much more. Fascists disagree. Especially Batista Cuban fascists who rule and run Florida.

    State Police, no matter the sate, and perhaps all police all things considered, are not only stupid thugs, but they’re corrupt cowardly thugs. These pussies need to have their faces rearranged and the limbs ripped off for pulling guns on her and her family. I’d do it, with an assembled team of experts in this manner of demolition, but THEIR laws protect them and they have their criminal counterparts in prison who will rape you if you try to level true justice against them. There are degrees of cowardice, and this is cowardice of the worst degree. Death to them. Defunding them won’t work. You have to eliminate them, otherwise they’ll come back again and again in various forms.

    As POTUS, what will Biden do about this? Claim States’ Rights? No doubt. DeSantis, the fascist Batista Cuban, who is not an American in sentiment despite his citizenship but instead a Cuban who has helped usurp Florida and make it Batista Cuba, is using Florida law enforcement resources as his own personal fascist shock troops. His Brown Shirts. His Gestapo. His SS. This comes on the heels of the recent draconian legislation passed in Florida where DeSantis deputized all the Batista Cuban thugs by making it legal for “citizens,” and I use that term loosely, to open fire on protesters under the stand your ground law.

    I watched Morning Mika this morning and there was nothing about this story and yet Joe & Mika, tax dodgers that they are, reside in Florida for tax purposes. I guess Joe Scarface being a Republican has a soft spot in his dark heart for the likes of a fellow Republican, DeSantis, and his fascist tactics.

    Where are the Dems in coming to this woman’s and her family’s rescue? No where to be found just as they will be no where to be found in representing the interests of the unwashed 90%. The guillotine is too merciful for these scum.

  30. CH

    What is often referred to as the “commons” is, in fact, a free-for-all. Not the same thing.

  31. Ten Bears

    Erik Loomis has some thoughts at Pretentious, Pop-Pistols and Peanuts

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