US druid chief & common rights guru??

Tony Gosling tony at
Sat Jan 26 19:10:01 GMT 2013

The Archdruid Report
John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the 
<>Ancient Order of Druids in 
America and the author of more than twenty books 
on a wide range of subjects, including The Long 
Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the 
Industrial Age, The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring 
a Post-Peak World, and The Wealth of Nature: 
Economics As If Survival Mattered. He lives in 
Cumberland, MD, an old red brick mill town in the 
north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

Wednesday, January 23, 2013#

Restoring the Commons

The hard work of rebuilding a post-imperial 
America, as I suggested in last week’s post, is 
going to require the recovery or reinvention of 
many of the things this nation chucked into the 
dumpster with whoops of glee as it took off 
running in pursuit of its imperial ambitions. The 
basic skills of democratic process are among the 
things on that list; so, as I suggested last 
month, are the even more basic skills of learning 
and thinking that undergird the practice of democracy.

All that remains crucial. Still, it so happens 
that a remarkably large number of the other 
things that will need to be put back in place are 
all variations of a common theme.  What’s more, 
it’s a straightforward theme­or, more precisely, 
would be straightforward if so many people these 
days weren’t busy trying to pretend that the 
concept at its center either doesn’t exist or 
doesn’t present the specific challenges that have 
made it so problematic in recent years. The 
concept in question?  The mode of collective 
participation in the use of resources, extending 
from the most material to the most abstract, that 
goes most often these days by the name of “the commons.”

The redoubtable green philosopher Garrett Hardin 
played a central role decades ago in drawing 
attention to the phenomenon in question with his 
Tragedy of the Commons.  It’s a remarkable work, 
and it’s been rendered even more remarkable by 
the range of contortions engaged in by thinkers 
across the economic and political spectrum in 
their efforts to evade its conclusions.  Those 
maneuvers have been tolerably successful; I 
suspect, for example, that many of my readers 
will recall the flurry of claims a few years back 
that the late Nobel Prize-winning economist 
Elinor Ostrom had “disproved” Hardin with her 
work on the sustainable management of resources.

In point of fact, she did no such thing.  Hardin 
demonstrated in his essay that an unmanaged 
commons faces the risk of a vicious spiral of 
mismanagement that ends in the common’s 
destruction; Ostrom got her Nobel, and deservedly 
so, by detailed and incisive analysis of the 
kinds of management that prevent Hardin’s tragedy 
of the commons from taking place. A little later 
in this essay, we’ll get to why those kinds of 
management are exactly what nobody in the 
mainstream of American public life wants to talk 
about just now; the first task at hand is to walk 
through the logic of Hardin’s essay and 
understand exactly what he was saying and why it matters.

Hardin asks us to imagine a common pasture, of 
the sort that was common in medieval villages 
across Europe. The pasture is owned by the 
village as a whole; each of the villagers has the 
right to put his cattle out to graze on the 
pasture.  The village as a whole, however, has no 
claim on the milk the cows produce; that belongs 
to the villager who owns any given cow.  The 
pasture is a collective resource, from which 
individuals are allowed to extract private 
profit; that’s the basic definition of a commons.

In the Middle Ages, such arrangements were common 
across Europe, and they worked well because they 
were managed by tradition, custom, and the 
immense pressure wielded by informal consensus in 
small and tightly knit communities, backed up 
where necessary by local manorial courts and a 
body of customary law that gave short shrift to 
the pursuit of personal advantage at the expense 
of others.  The commons that Hardin asks us to 
envision, though, has no such protections in 
place.  Imagine, he says, that one villager buys 
additional cows and puts them out to graze on the 
common pasture. Any given pasture can only 
support so many cows before it suffers damage; to 
use the jargon of the ecologist, it has a fixed 
carrying capacity for milk cows, and exceeding 
the carrying capacity will degrade the resource 
and lower its future carrying capacity. Assume 
that the new cows raise the total number of cows 
past what the pasture can support indefinitely, 
so once the new cows go onto the pasture, the pasture starts to degrade.

Notice how the benefits and costs sort themselves 
out.  The villager with the additional cows 
receives all the benefit of the additional milk 
his new cows provide, and he receives it right 
away.  The costs of his action, by contrast, are 
shared with everyone else in the village, and 
their impact is delayed, since it takes time for 
pasture to degrade.  Thus, according to today’s 
conventional economic theories, the villager is 
doing the right thing. Since the milk he gets is 
worth more right now than the fraction of the 
discounted future cost of the degradation of the 
pasture he will eventually have to carry, he is 
pursuing his own economic interest in a rational manner.

The other villagers, faced with this situation, 
have a choice of their own to make.  (We’ll 
assume, again, that they don’t have the option of 
forcing the villager with the new cows to get rid 
of them and return the total herd on the pasture 
to a level it can support indefinitely.)  They 
can do nothing, in which case they bear the costs 
of the degradation of the pasture but gain 
nothing in return, or they can buy more cows of 
their own, in which case they also get more milk, 
but the pasture degrades even faster. According 
to most of today’s economic theories, the latter 
choice is the right one, since it allows them to 
maximize their own economic interest in exactly 
the same way as the first villager. The result of 
the process, though, is that a pasture that would 
have kept a certain number of cattle fed 
indefinitely is turned into a barren area of 
compacted subsoil that won’t support any cattle 
at all.  The rational pursuit of individual 
advantage thus results in permanent impoverishment for everybody.

This may seem like common sense.  It is common 
sense, but when Hardin first published “The 
Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, it went off like 
a bomb in the halls of academic economics. Since 
Adam Smith’s time, one of the most passionately 
held beliefs of capitalist economics has been the 
insistence that individuals pursuing their own 
economic interest without interference from 
government or anyone else will reliably produce 
the best outcome for everybody.  You’ll still 
hear defenders of free market economics making 
that claim, as if nobody but the Communists ever 
brought it into question.  That’s why very few 
people like to talk about Hardin’s tragedy of the 
commons these days; it makes it all but 
impossible to uphold a certain bit of popular, 
appealing, but dangerous nonsense.

Does this mean that the rational pursuit of 
individual advantage always produces negative 
results for everyone?  Not at all.  The theorists 
of capitalism can point to equally cogent 
examples in which Adam Smith’s invisible hand 
passes out benefits to everyone, and a case could 
probably be made that this happens more often 
than the opposite.  The fact remains that the 
opposite does happen, not merely in theory but 
also in the real world, and that the consequences 
of the tragedy of the commons can reach far 
beyond the limits of a single village.

Hardin himself pointed to the destruction of the 
world’s oceanic fisheries by overharvesting as an 
example, and it’s a good one.  If current trends 
continue, many of my readers can look forward, 
over the next couple of decades, to tasting the 
last seafood they will ever eat.  A food resource 
that could have been managed sustainably for 
millennia to come is being annihilated in our 
lifetimes, and the logic behind it is that of the 
tragedy of the commons:  participants in the 
world’s fishing industries, from giant 
corporations to individual boat owners and their 
crews, are pursuing their own economic interests, 
and exterminating one fishery after another in the process.

Another example?  The worldwide habit of treating 
the atmosphere as an aerial sewer into which 
wastes can be dumped with impunity.  Every one of 
my readers who burns any fossil fuel, for any 
purpose, benefits directly from being able to 
vent the waste CO2 directly into the atmosphere, 
rather than having to cover the costs of 
disposing of it in some other way.  As a result 
of this rational pursuit of personal economic 
interest, there’s a very real chance that most of 
the world’s coastal cities will have to be 
abandoned to the rising oceans over the next 
century or so, imposing trillions of dollars of costs on the global economy.

Plenty of other examples of the same kind could 
be cited.  At this point, though, I’d like to 
shift focus a bit to a different class of 
phenomena, and point to the Glass-Steagall Act, a 
piece of federal legislation that was passed by 
the US Congress in 1933 and repealed in 
1999.  The Glass-Steagall Act made it illegal for 
banks to engage in both consumer banking 
activities such as taking deposits and making 
loans, and investment banking activities such as 
issuing securities; banks had to choose one or 
the other. The firewall between consumer banking 
and investment banking was put in place because 
in its absence, in the years leading up to the 
1929 crash, most of the banks in the country had 
gotten over their heads in dubious financial 
deals linked to stocks and securities, and the 
collapse of those schemes played a massive role 
in bringing the national economy to the brink of total collapse.

By the 1990s, such safeguards seemed unbearably 
dowdy to a new generation of bankers, and after a 
great deal of lobbying the provisions of the 
Glass-Steagall Act were eliminated.  Those of my 
readers who didn’t spend the last decade hiding 
under a rock know exactly what happened 
thereafter:  banks went right back to the bad 
habits that got their predecessors into trouble 
in 1929, profited mightily in the short term, and 
proceeded to inflict major damage on the global 
economy when the inevitable crash came in 2008.

That is to say, actions performed by individuals 
(and those dubious “legal persons” called 
corporations) in the pursuit of their own private 
economic advantage garnered profits over the 
short term for those who engaged in them, but 
imposed long-term costs on everybody.  If this 
sounds familiar, dear reader, it should.  When 
individuals or corporations profit from their 
involvement in an activity that imposes costs on 
society as a whole, that activity functions as a 
commons, and if that commons is unmanaged the 
tragedy of the commons is a likely result.  The 
American banking industry before 1933 and after 
1999 functioned, and currently functions, as an 
unmanaged commons; between those years, it was a 
managed commons.  While it was an unmanaged 
commons, it suffered from exactly the outcome 
Hardin’s theory predicts; when it was a managed 
commons, by contrast, a major cause of banking 
failure was kept at bay, and the banking sector 
was more often a source of strength than a source 
of weakness to the national economy.

It’s not hard to name other examples of what I 
suppose we could call “commons-like 
phenomena”­that is, activities in which the 
pursuit of private profit can impose serious 
costs on society as a whole­in contemporary 
America.  One that bears watching these days is 
food safety.  It is to the immediate financial 
advantage of businesses in the various industries 
that produce food for human consumption to cut 
costs as far as possible, even if this 
occasionally results in unsafe products that 
cause sickness and death to people who consume 
them; the benefits in increased profits are 
immediate and belong entirely to the business, 
while the costs of increased morbidity and 
mortality are borne by society as a whole, 
provided that your legal team is good enough to 
keep the inevitable lawsuits at bay.  Once again, 
the asymmetry between benefits and costs produces 
a calculus that brings unwelcome outcomes.

The American political system, in its 
pre-imperial and early imperial stages, evolved a 
distinctive response to these challenges. The 
Declaration of Independence, the wellspring of 
American political thought, defines the purpose 
of government as securing the rights to life, 
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  There’s 
more to that often-quoted phrase than meets the 
eye.  In particular, it doesn’t mean that 
governments are supposed to provide anybody with 
life, liberty, or happiness; their job is simply 
to secure for their citizens certain basic 
rights, which may be inalienable­that is, they 
can’t be legally transferred to somebody else, as 
they could under feudal law­but are far from 
absolute. What citizens do with those rights is 
their own business, at least in theory, so long 
as their exercise of their rights does not 
interfere too drastically with the ability of 
others to do the same thing.  The assumption, 
then and later, was that citizens would use their 
rights to seek their own advantage, by means as 
rational or irrational as they chose, while the 
national community as a whole would cover the 
costs of securing those rights against anyone and 
anything that attempted to erase them.

That is to say, the core purpose of government in 
the American tradition is the maintenance of the 
national commons. It exists to manage the various 
commons and commons-like phenomena that are 
inseparable from life in a civilized society, and 
thus has the power to impose such limits on 
people (and corporate pseudopeople) as will 
prevent their pursuit of personal advantage from 
leading to a tragedy of the commons in one way or 
another.  Restricting the capacity of banks to 
gamble with depositors’ money is one such limit; 
restricting the freedom of manufacturers to sell 
unsafe food is another, and so on down the list 
of reasonable regulations.  Beyond those 
necessary limits, government has no call to 
intervene; how people choose to live their lives, 
exercise their liberties, and pursue happiness is 
up to them, so long as it doesn’t put the 
survival of any part of the national commons at risk.

As far as I know, you won’t find that definition 
taught in any of the tiny handful of high schools 
that still offer civics classes to young 
Americans about to reach voting age. Still, it’s 
a neat summary of generations of political 
thought in pre-imperial and early imperial 
America.  These days, by contrast, it’s rare to 
find this function of government even hinted 
at.  Rather, the function of government in late 
imperial America is generally seen as a matter of 
handing out largesse of various kinds to any 
group organized or influential enough to elbow 
its way to a place at the feeding trough. Even 
those people who insist they are against all 
government entitlement programs can be counted on 
to scream like banshees if anything threatens 
those programs from which they themselves 
benefit; the famous placard reading “Government 
Hands Off My Medicare” is an embarrassingly good 
reflection of the attitude that most American 
pseudoconservatives adopt in practice, however 
loudly they decry government spending in theory.

A strong case can be made, though, for 
jettisoning the notion of government as national 
sugar daddy and returning to the older notion of 
government as guarantor of the national 
commons.  The central argument in that case is 
simply that in the wake of empire, the torrents 
of imperial tribute that made the government 
largesse of the recent past possible in the first 
place will go away.  As the United States loses 
the ability to command a quarter of the world’s 
energy supplies and a third of its natural 
resources and industrial product, and has to make 
do with the much smaller share it can expect to 
produce within its own borders, the feeding 
trough in Washington DC­not to mention its junior 
equivalents in the fifty state capitals, and so 
on down the pyramid of American government­is going to run short.

In point of fact, it’s already running 
short.  That’s the usually unmentioned factor 
behind the intractable gridlock in our national 
politics:  there isn’t enough largesse left to 
give every one of the pressure groups and veto 
blocs its accustomed share, and the pressure 
groups and veto blocs are responding to this 
unavoidable problem by jamming up the machinery 
of government with ever more frantic efforts to 
get whatever they can.  That situation can only 
end in crisis, and probably in a crisis big 
enough to shatter the existing order of things in 
Washington DC; after the rubble stops bouncing, 
the next order of business will be piecing 
together some less gaudily corrupt way of managing the nation’s affairs.

That process of reconstruction might be furthered 
substantially if the pre-imperial concept of the 
role of government were to get a little more air 
time these days.  I’ve spoken at quite some 
length here and elsewhere about the very limited 
contribution that grand plans and long 
discussions can make to an energy future that’s 
less grim than the one toward which we’re 
hurtling at the moment, and there’s a fair bit of 
irony in the fact that I’m about to suggest 
exactly the opposite conclusion with regard to 
the political sphere.  Still, the circumstances 
aren’t the same.  The time for talking about our 
energy future was decades ago, when we still had 
the time and the resources to get new and more 
sustainable energy and transportation systems in 
place before conventional petroleum production 
peaked and sent us skidding down the far side of 
Hubbert’s peak.  That time is long past, the 
options remaining to us are very narrow, and 
another round of conversation won’t do anything 
worthwhile to change the course of events at this point.

That’s much less true of the political situation, 
because politics are subject to rules very 
different from the implacable mathematics of 
petroleum depletion and net energy.  At some 
point in the not too distant future, the 
political system of the United States of America 
is going to tip over into explosive crisis, and 
at that time ideas that are simply talking points 
today have at least a shot at being enacted into 
public policy. That’s exactly what happened at 
the beginning of the three previous cycles of 
anacyclosis I traced out 
a previous post in this series.  In 1776, 1860, 
and 1933, ideas that had been on the political 
fringes not that many years beforehand redefined 
the entire political dialogue, and in all three 
cases this was possible because those once-fringe 
ideas had been widely circulated and widely 
discussed, even though most of the people who 
circulated and discussed them never imagined that 
they would live to see those ideas put into practice.

There are plenty of ideas about politics and 
society in circulation on the fringes of today’s 
American dialogue, to be sure.  I’d like to 
suggest, though, that there’s a point to reviving 
an older, pre-imperial vision of what government 
can do, and ought to do, in the America of the 
future.  A political system that envisions its 
role as holding an open space in which citizens 
can pursue their own dreams and experiment with 
their own lives is inherently likely to be better 
at dissensus than more regimented alternatives, 
whether those come from the left or the right­and 
dissensus, to return to a central theme of this 
blog, is the best strategy we’ve got as we move 
into a future where nobody can be sure of having the right answers.

+44 (0)7786 952037
Twitter: @TonyGosling
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"Capitalism is institutionalised bribery."

"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic 
poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung

Fear not therefore: for there is nothing covered 
that shall not be revealed; and nothing hid that 
shall not be made known. What I tell you in 
darkness, that speak ye in the light and what ye 
hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. Matthew 10:26-27

Die Pride and Envie; Flesh, take the poor's advice.
Covetousnesse be gon: Come, Truth and Love arise.
Patience take the Crown; throw Anger out of dores:
Cast out Hypocrisie and Lust, which follows whores:
Then England sit in rest; Thy sorrows will have end;
Thy Sons will live in peace, and each will be a friend.  
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