THE BLOG
10/14/2012 08:53 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2012

Relocating Culture to Find a Solution to the Tragedy of the Commons

In the Mayan Highlands of the Ixil region of Guatemala there exists some of the most ecologically pristine mountain prairies that can be found on earth. These prairies, far from being an untouched wilderness, are rather the communal pasture lands that the Mayan Ixil people have carefully and collectively managed for more than 2,000 years. The irony is that according to one of the most influential social theories today, these pristine communal lands should have been ecologically devastated years ago.

The theory of the Tragedy of the Commons was first articulated in 1968 by University of California professor Garret Hardin. The most commonly accepted definition of the tragedy of the commons is: "Multiple individuals acting solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest will ultimately deplete a shared, limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen."

The textbook example that Hardin uses is precisely that of shared pasture land. He predicted that if a pasture was communal land, then individual herdsmen would inevitably attempt to exploit that land by increasing his own individual herd without any consideration of the ill effects of over-herding on the shared land or on his fellow herdsmen. Since every individual herdsmen would attempt the same, it follows that eventually the commons would be devastated through overgrazing and be converted into useless land.

Hardin bases his theory on an assumption about human nature; namely, that we are naturally selfish creatures only capable of seeking our own personal best interest. In his example about the communal pasture land, he concludes that it is "the rational herdsman" who must follow personal self-interest to increase his herd, thus equating rationality with self-interest.

The communal pasture lands of the Ixil people, to cite just one example, are enough evidence to disprove the "inevitability" of Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons." Why then has this theory garnered so much attention to the point that, according the World Bank, it is "the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues"?

According to Ian Angus, editor of Climate and Capitalism, "The success of Hardin's argument reflects its usefulness as a pseudo-scientific explanation of global poverty and inequality, an explanation that doesn't question the dominant social and political order." Hardin's argument provided an academic justification for the burgeoning capitalist "ethic" that states that individual selfishness is necessary to increase the common good as well as offering a solution to avoid the supposed tragedy of the commons.

Privatization has been one of the most heralded solutions to the very real and tangible problems that our world faces. According to Professor Jonathan Tomkin from the University of Illinois,

"There can't be a tragedy of the commons if there is no commons. So if a resource can be privatized -- that is, owned by individuals -- we now see an alignment between an individual's interest and the long-term interest, because they don't want to destroy this resource; they want to keep it for the next year or for the next generation."

Is privatization a viable way to deal with global problems such as climate change that seem to stem from a tragedy of the commons?

Two main problems come to mind. Firstly, the anthropocentric mindset coupled with the consumer mentality that dominates our western culture generally consider the natural world as nothing more than a bank of resources to be mined and exploited for the advancement and development of the human species (or at least for the segment of population benefitting from that mindset). According to famous naturalist Aldo Leopold, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us." When land is seen as nothing more than a commodity in the eyes of society, privatization can only lead to increased destruction.

Secondly, our actions inevitably stem from the mindset behind them. From the capitalist mindset, the goal is not to protect and preserve the natural world, but to recklessly exploit up to that point that it can render no more before moving on to the next promising bank of resources. Ian Angus adds that, "Capitalist owners ... will not survive in business if they don't maximize short-term profit. If ethanol promises bigger and faster profits than centuries-old rain forests, the trees will fall." The capitalist "ethic" of maximum short term gain, coupled with privatizing the commons, is a recipe for disaster on an ecological level.

If privatization is not a solution, we might ask how then have the Mayan Ixil people managed to avoid the tragedy of the commons?

Contradicting Hardin's idea of human nature, writer Daniel Quinn says that,

"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, they will live at odds with the world."

The Mayan Ixil people, like most indigenous peoples, have a story that puts them in accord with the world; one very different from the story that governs the globalized, consumer driven society in which we live.

Denis Blamont from the World Mountain People Association, states that, "In our experience working with indigenous populations around the world, we find that almost all indigenous peoples share common beliefs. One of these beliefs is that land is considered to be a gift to future generations; a gift that must be preserved."

In the case of the Mayan Ixil, three characteristics of their story are especially important for the preservation of their common pasture land and their community lifestyle: an autonomous organization that governs community life, rootedness and identification with a specific land/place, and a lifestyle defined by just and necessary limitations.

Every community in the Ixil region is governed by its own council of elders; women and men who have been elected by the community for their ancestral wisdom and unwavering dedication to maintaining the traditional values of the community. These elders exercise their leadership in cases ranging from domestic violence to the regulation of the use of pasture land. Justice that is administered on a local level by revered elders of the community is much more likely to be observed and respected and thus capable of avoiding problems associated with egoistic self-interest that the tragedy of the commons considers unavoidable.

Furthermore, the Ixil people are intimately connected to the land they have inhabited for more than 2,000 years and that they collectively own. This connection, along with creating a fierce determination to defend their land from the greed of numerous transnational mining and hydroelectric corporations greedily eyeing their wealth of natural resources, has also led the Ixil people to live a lifestyle defined by just and necessary limitations that assure the ecological well-being of their lands.

When asked about the potential problem of individual over pasturing of the commons that Hardin deemed as inevitable, ancestral elder Diego Ceto from the community of Sumal, Nebaj stated that, "Our people don't have enough (economic) resources to buy the amount of sheep necessary to damage the pasture lands." The simple yet dignified lifestyle of the Ixil farmers creates limitations that permit them to live sustainably within the ecosystems of their ancestral lands. Limitations, however, are the antithesis of what modern consumer society exhorts.

Although Kofi Annan believes that, "Arguing against globalization is like arguing against the laws of gravity," perhaps the best way to deal with the supposed tragedy of the global commons is to seek to change the scale of our livelihoods and our societies.

A radical solution, then, would be to create a civilizational paradigm where we would know our neighbors as do the Ixil people. Writer and farmer Wendell Berry says that we live in a "world dominated by a global economy that places no value whatsoever on community or community coherence. In this economy, whose business is to set in contention things that belong together, you can do nothing more divisive than to assert the claims of community."

The principal challenge of our society then is to "re-locate" our culture and root our lives to a certain, defined place to the extent that we can identify with it and feel the bonds of belonging. We need to re-create a sense of community that, in the words of Wendell Berry, "Is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives."

By being connected to a certain place and feeling the bonds of responsibility and the reciprocal restraint of necessary limitations that comes with belonging to community, we could find the prerogative to discover local, community based solutions to sustainably manage the commons.

Our main challenge is to let go of a relative new story that has defined us as unconnected individuals acting for purely self-interest, and learn from the story that still thrives amongst people like the Mayan Ixil; a story that insists that we can act "in accord with the world."