The Tragedy of the Commons: Now on a Planetary Level – What to do

It was only with the spread of Judeo-Christian monotheism that most traces of the ancient Palaeolithic world view disappeared in the West and that nature, instead of being sacred and intricately animate, came to be seen as a backdrop, a theatre for the all-important solo human  performance…”  John Steffler, Wilderness on the Page

When short-term goals are allowed to damage long-term interest, there is an economic expression for it: “The tragedy of the commons”. The earth itself has become a commons. Tragedy, as Aristotle defines it, results when a fatal flaw in character causes an otherwise good and moral person to make an error of judgement.  Often, it is hubris or self-pride that undermines the common good, eliciting pity and fear.  In this article, I will explore the concept of commons in community land-use practice as a basis for understanding our current crisis.

Our environmental tragedy derives from an overweening mercantile greed that undercuts civil sustenance by creating a climate unable to sustain human existence. Now that we have reached a tipping point, with only ten years left to curb our carbon emissions, we feel pity and fear for nature and for ourselves.

To illuminate the concept of “commons” and what is outside it, which we could term the “non-commons”, it helps to briefly look at what the terms meant historically in America and Europe.

Non-Commons: Nomadism, “Wilderness,” and Territoriality in America

Nomadism usually connotes hunters and foragers travelling in search of sustenance, with no fixed habitation.  American Indian tribes are often given as recent historical examples of this life-style, but many were semi-nomadic, traveling to hunt but also farming fixed settlements.  

The Pilgrims’ “first encounter” (which they lost) was not with nomadic bands of landless people but with Cape Cod Nausets, furious that the pilgrims had stolen their village’s stash of (cultivated) corn and beans.  Later, it was the cleared and tilled fields in the Wampanoag village of Patuxet, abandoned when the local Indians were decimated by European-borne disease, that saved the Plymouth Colony. Even then, they might have starved if they hadn’t learned Indian agricultural practices from Squanto, a Native American interpreter and guide who was on the lookout for a useful alliance with Massasoit, Chief of the Wampanoags.

American colonists nonetheless termed “wilderness” all lands beyond their settlements, including Indian villages. To them, these were wild areas populated by wild (“savage”) peoples. Although they recognized that the Indians had complex economic systems of trade and even used coinage (wampum), they deemed them ignorant of land ownership.

Wampum beads Source: Smithsonian/NMAI Stephen Lang photography

Most American Indian land use practice was based on a theology that took land not as an object separated from humans who are free to buy and sell it but as a living being, a “sacred and intricately animate” subject in and of itself. Human beings are contained within it and must thus seek harmony with rather than domination over nature.

Laguna Pueblo Sioux writer Paula Gunn Allen puts it best in her pioneering work,  The Sacred Hoop, Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (1986):

“The earth is the source and the being of the people, and we are equally the being of the earth. The land is not really a place, separate from ourselves, where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies …An Indian, at the deepest level of being, assumes that the earth is alive in the same sense that human beings are alive.” (p 70)

American  Indian reverence for the land does not, however, preclude fiercely defending tribal rights to hunt, fish, and cultivate specific areas.  Territorial conflict between the six warring Eastern Iroquois tribes became so intense that they established the Iroquois Confederacy as a mutually beneficial alliance.

Considering the similarly incessant wars among plains tribes like the Comanche and Apache, you can see that although land ownership was alien to American Indians the control of territory was a prominent feature of their cultures.

By the late 1700s the United States Government had redefined “wilderness” as “public land” to be seized from American Indians and placed under the ownership of Euro-Americans  for their own exclusive use.

European Commons

In European usage, land is an object of both individual and communal ownership. Historic commons are not areas of unowned land, nor public land in the sense of being available to anyone at all, but areas of wetlands and arable upland acres managed by villages under strict rules for forage, fowling, fishing, cultivation and pasturage.   

In The Anglo-Saxon Fenland, archaeologist Susan Oosthuizen explains how, from the Fifth Century on, English “Rights of Common” allow “defined, limited groups of individuals to exploit specific natural resources within a defined area.” Her detailed maps of commons apportionment surrounding Cambridge and Ely display tight controls over the use of arable lands, pasturage islands, and wetland areas where fishing, fowling, and cutting marsh reeds, sedges and grasses for feed and thatching were prescribed in intricate and precise detail.

Professor Ooshuizen describes these commons as tightly governed under rights of property controlled by a legally designated group of people (villagers) working the land in equity, with no one getting to use a larger share of the land than anyone else and all decisions made by consensus (xiv-xvi).  

In “Historical Notes on the Lot-Meadow Customs” near Oxford, R.H. Gretton demonstrates similarly precise methods of allotting land for village use.  In three meadows near the Thames, for example, “mowing rights are assigned every year by casting lots in the form of 13 balls with Meadow names on them,” while the “rights of pasture” are allotted “on the basis of one cow or bullock to each acre and one horse to every two acres.”  

When British economist William Forster Lloyd introduced the economic concept of “the tragedy of the commons” in 1833, he was describing what happened if grazing went unregulated: all the grass would get eaten up, a tragedy for the village which depended on common usage to sustain individual families

From Managed Lands in Commons to Enclosure

The step from commons to enclosure is short.

With aspiration for accumulation of monetary wealth in early modern capitalism, investors  pooled their resources to maximize profits. For example, when the lucrative Flemish cloth industry required large quantities of wool, it was profitable for companies of weavers to take over village commons for large scale sheep pasturage by enclosing them within set boundaries and revoking public usage. As an added advantage, the dispossessed villagers, no longer able to sustain themselves, provided cheap labor for the new factories.  

For wetland commons, enclosure began with drainage. In the 1630’s, a group of investors dubbing themselves “Merchant Adventurers” (the ancestors of our “venture capitalists”) hired Dutch engineers to drain vast areas of the East Anglian fens, which provided richly fertile acreage for cultivation.


This was met with terrific resistance by wetland guerillas, calling themselves Fen Tigers, who conducted such successful guerrilla skirmishes against the drainage schemes of the Earls of Bedford that it took the 300 years between the 1630’s and 1930’s to complete them.

While village and wetland commons are based on community land management for the mutual sustenance of local inhabitants,  enclosure benefits private owners and investors.

Capitalism and the Common Good

Considering that Adam Smith himself insisted the market be subject to regulatory laws lest it cause social harm, it is mistaken to understand early modern capitalism as a system fueled by a basically “free market.” Market Fundamentalism, the idea that the economy functions best without intervention, is a relatively recent position formulated by late 20th century Neo-Conservatives and Libertarians.  

Historically, Americans have been wary of leaving markets to their own devices, with Presidents Jefferson, John Adams and Lincoln warning against the civil damage that unregulated corporations can cause.

Early 20th century progressivism, similarly required governmental regulation to protect citizens from corporate depredation. When Teddy Roosevelt dubbed himself a “Trust-buster” in his crusade against the “Robber Barons,”  his economic philosophy was based on a conviction that the national government was obliged to regulate capitalism for the common good, a concept that also underlies Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

In reaction against the present day Republican determination to free business from government regulation,  contemporary progressives propose a “great turning” from untrammeled capitalism to new economic systems like  “post-capitalism,” “a circular economy,” “a green collar economy,” “the green new deal”  and a “collaborative commons.”

Rather than abandoning regulation to the monetarily self-interested dictates of corporate oligarchies, the American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, author of the groundbreaking bestseller The Third Industrial Revolution that was formally endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007 and is now being implemented by various agencies within the European Commission,  proposes in his latest book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism a national economy ruled on a grass-roots commons basis.

In that book he identifies the rise of the zero marginal cost phenomenon in our increasingly “sharing” society (think Uber, Airbnb) and he outlines an emerging new economic system, the collaborative commons. Consumers become “prosumers”. In short, he predicts the rise of a global Collaborative Commons and the eclipse of capitalism.

The Earth as Commons

The public land concept in the United States began with the government’s seizure of American Indian territory along with lands ceded in battle by Mexico, Russia, Spain, France and England. Today, public lands consist of federally owned properties like national parks, forests, and recreation areas, held aside for use by all citizens. At the same time, bodies of water like  “wild and scenic rivers,”  the Great Lakes and even Oceans are being re-defined as commons, in the sense of requiring legislation for their stewardship and protection.   

Meanwhile, under the threat of global warming and climate change to every inhabitant of the planet, as manifest in international agreements like the Paris Climate Accords and the United Nations’ Global Goals for “sustainable development for people and planet by 2030,”  we have realized that the earth itself can be defined as commons.

Global hopes have been undermined, however, by tragic choices for short term capital goals, demonstrated in the recalcitrance of the United States to stay in the Accords and in the slowness of its member nations to lower carbon emissions.

Like individual Medieval households over-grazing common pasturage until none is left for anybody, we continue to privilege short-term profit over long-term ecological planning.

Just as I was finishing this article,  Scientific American published “The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons,where Matto Mildenberger argues for a rejection of the term on the grounds that a prominent twentieth century proponent, Garrett Hardin, was a ”eugenicist, racist and Islamophobe” who believed that white people should seize the commons and exclude other races from its benefits. “And he promoted an idea he called ‘lifeboat ethics’: since global resources are finite, Hardin believed the rich should throw poor people overboard to keep their boat above water.”

In Mildenberger’s argument, the tragedy of the commons only impacts the commoners, those poor and racial outsiders victimized by corporate hubris.

Canadian ecologist Nina Munteanu also grounds our tragedy in corporations caught up in a short-sighted economic philosophy on a global scale:

“Most economic-based indices of national ‘well-being’ remain bound to a faulty narrative of resource exploitation, production, and growth driven by subtle protectionist and competitive notions.”

Munteanu proposes that we abandon these narratives to synthesize a new paradigm blending “economy,” in its root meaning as “household management,” with “ecology” in its attention to the study of habitat.

The result will be a world-view governed by “ecosophy,” by which we will come to “understand the necessity of treating our earth home with wisdom.”

Or, as Steven Hesse puts it, as we stand on the brink of a worldwide tragedy of the commons we are left with the question of whether our “commons sense [will] dawn again in time?”

Steeped as we are in myopically mercantile hubris, can homo sapiens possibly make the cognitive leap to act for the planetary good?  

I hope to have demonstrated that, given our long history of forwarding common good, honing our know-how by cooperating in families, tribes, nations, and even in international bodies, this is not as much a paradigm shift as a return to historical practice.  

When tribal or national self-interest have threatened mutual destruction like the territorial conflicts between Iroquois tribes or the “Mutually Assured Destruction” that threatened both the United States and Russia in the twentieth century, we have had the “commons sense” to forge confederations and nuclear disarmament treaties.

Mildenberger also notes our long history of acting in common:

“Hope requires us to start from an unconditional commitment to one another, as passengers aboard a common lifeboat being rattled by heavy winds. The climate movement needs more people on this lifeboat, not fewer. We must make room for every human if we are going to build the political power necessary to face down the looming oil tankers and coal barges that send heavy waves in our direction. This is a commitment at the heart of proposals like the Green New Deal.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez participated  in a Sunrise Movement rally on 13 May 2019, talking about the Green New Deal, telling the crowd: “There is no reason for us to be comfortable, and I’m not here to guarantee to you that everything will be O.K. But what I am here to say is that we must try.”

Simply put, human history demonstrates that our will to mutuality is more deeply rooted than a will to individual self-interest, and that, by acting upon our long history of cooperation in common, we yet avert the tragedy of our global commons.

In the cover photo: Torres del Paine  Credit: Photographer Christopher Michel

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About the Author /

Annis Pratt is an environmental novelist and activist living near Detroit, Michigan. She holds the Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and has taught at Emory University, Spelman College, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can find her at

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