At last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the former White House aide Sebastian Gorka accused the Green New Deal of being a “watermelon.” The policy may look green on the outside, Gorka warned, but vigilant Republicans like him knew it to be “deep, deep-red Communist on the inside,” the sort of red that “Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.” Such fearmongering should come as no surprise. From free polio vaccines to Social Security, any mildly redistributive policy proposed by the Democratic Party has always been met with thundering sermons from the other side of the aisle about the imminent threat of mass collectivization. It’s a strategy as old as the environmental movement itself. In 1962, President Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture wrote that Rachel Carson was “probably a Communist.”
Carson was certainly no communist, and even the environmental proposals of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are more John Maynard Keynes than Rosa Luxemburg. But the watermelon environmentalist is not a total figment of the right’s imagination. Six years ago, Naomi Klein freely admitted in This Changes Everything that she had given little thought to environmental questions until she realized that climate change “could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are fairer and safer in all kinds of other ways as well.” Klein cited psychological research showing that environmental concerns are more likely to be taken up by people who consider themselves to be egalitarian. According to this line of reasoning, the watermelon is a type, a left-winger for whom environmentalism is merely a station on the road to a workers’ revolution. For Klein, climate change is a galvanizing force not so much for humanity as a whole, but for people a lot like her and her audience, who come to environmental issues already passionately anti-capitalist for a host of other reasons.
As a statement of the problem, I love This Changes Everything. With tremendous eloquence and clarity, Klein makes the case that neoliberal capitalism is an environmental catastrophe. This seems to me inarguable. Perverse incentives like built-in obsolescence are braided into the logic of laissez-faire. Billions of dollars are spent persuading us to want stuff we don’t need. In our age of runaway consumerism, even advances in energy efficiency cause resource depletion, as more commodities are produced to capitalize on profitability gains. Over the past four decades, free-market fundamentalism, greenhouse-gas emissions, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss have brought us to a point of ecological crisis.
When it comes to diagnosis, I’m with the watermelons all the way. It’s when they discuss solutions that they lose me. In This Changes Everything, Klein invested much of her hope for a better world in Latin America’s “pink tide”: Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Brazil’s Lula. Judging from her new essay collection On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a New Green Deal, Klein has since grown disenchanted with the environmental record of most socialist governments, including the leftist petro-populist regimes that she had earlier celebrated so ardently. But what remains of her vision for an alternative to capitalism is fatally hazy. One source of the fog, I think, lies in the implicit psychology of the far left. Kleinian anti-capitalism is premised on the conviction that humans are naturally cooperative, and that changes in the economic and political order will bring our innate generosity to the fore. According to this widely held view, neoliberalism is forcibly restraining us from expressing our best selves. A socialist world order would therefore wreak a psychological transformation, turning humanity away from self-interest and toward altruism.
But if history has one clear lesson to offer, it is that building a new society on the assumption that humans are natural communards leads all too often to disaster. And when it comes to environmental issues, we no longer have the luxury to indulge in nineteenth-century fantasies of human perfectibility. Time is running out. To find our way to a honeydew politics for the Green New Deal—one that is radical yet pragmatic and green to the core—we must stop burdening our environmentalist critique of capitalism with utopian assumptions about human behavior. But in order to do that, we need to look back at the source of the left-right divide: How and why did these ideological divisions become so central to the environmental debate in the first place?
For anyone interested in dismantling the current impasse, an essential starting point is a six-page article published in Science in 1968, entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. As the red-baiting of Rachel Carson makes clear, Cold War-era environmental debates had already become a site of political polarization. What made Hardin’s paper so distinctive was that he proposed a solution to environmental degradation that happened to chime with both the free-market fundamentalists and the socialist elites of the time. Different aspects of his argument were applied across the globe, in capitalist and communist countries alike, turning “The Tragedy of the Commons” into a test of the relationship between political ideology, human psychology and environmental stewardship.
Hardin first presented his argument to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in June 1968; Science published a shortened version of the speech a few months later. Its central motif is the overgrazing of pastureland. “The tragedy of the commons develops in this way,” Hardin writes:
Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
Hardin argues that every herdsman reaps 100 percent of the financial benefit of adding a cow to the pasture while only having to absorb a small fraction of the cost of the resulting overgrazing. Consequently, the “rational herdsman” will add more and more animals to his herd, with disastrous results:
Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
Hardin’s focus was on the population problem, and the overgrazed pasture was his metaphor for the planet, with the rational herdsman standing in for the breeding pair. Like the self-interested owner of a herd of cows, every couple that produces another baby reaps all the benefits of having children while only bearing a tiny fraction of the environmental cost. The tragic consequences were inescapable.
The motif of an overgrazed pastureland partly reflected the circumstances of Hardin’s adolescence and young adulthood. Born in Texas in 1915, and weakened by a bout of polio at age four, Hardin was fourteen when the Great Crash came. He earned an undergraduate degree in zoology at the University of Chicago during the Dust Bowl years, and was later awarded a Ph.D. in microbiology from Stanford University, where he worked on growth, competition and equilibrium in populations of unicellular organisms. He defended his thesis just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but because of the lingering effects of polio, he spent the war years doing plant research. In 1946, he became a professor of human ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he stayed until his retirement in 1978.
At Santa Barbara, Hardin put aside laboratory research in favor of teaching, policy and public engagement. In 1949, he published a biology textbook laden with concerns about ecological degradation. A section on the water supply laments, “Man, poor planner that he is, responds to the threat of a falling water table by digging wells instead of by adjusting withdrawals to match the rate of replacement. It is so hard to live within one’s income!” A few pages later, an ominous photograph of a 1937 dust storm accompanies a plea for rational management of agricultural land and forests. The book ends with a chapter decrying the projected decline of American IQ (calculated from the presumption that poor people are less intelligent and reproduce at a faster rate than the well-off), advocating compulsory sterilization of the “feeble-minded” and warning of overpopulation.
With its eugenic sentiments, dark Malthusian view of human increase and confidence in the ability of scientific managers to solve complex problems, the textbook bears the hallmarks of the technocratic New Deal politics of Hardin’s youth. In the 1960s, his view of humanity dimmed even further. After the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the threshold of nuclear war, a branch of mathematics called game theory began to dominate academic disciplines from biology to psychology and political science. Under the sway of the grim calculations of nuclear deterrence, Hardin understood every natural and social system as a fierce competition in which individual entities—from microbes to nation-states—were engaged in a struggle to the death. Accordingly, he opened “The Tragedy of the Commons” with the assertion that nuclear warfare and overpopulation were both what game theorists would call “futile games”—problems without technical solutions. The only escape from remorseless ecological ruination, he argued, was a change in morality—or, in more pedestrian terms, a change in expectations. Instead of the “human right” to choose family size, which had been recently enshrined by the United Nations, humanity was going to have to accept “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”
Whereas Hardin’s diagnosis of the environmental crisis was based on the premises of neoclassical economics, his solutions ricocheted wildly from one extreme of the Cold War spectrum to the other. For the purposes of population restriction, he declared that humanity must “exorcize the spirit of Adam Smith in the field of practical demography,” and hinted that central planning by a world government would have to ration childbearing. When it came to the overgrazed pasture at the center of his analysis, however, he appealed to private ownership as a solution: “The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it.” Having prescribed this capitalist panacea, though, he quickly admitted that free enterprise would not willingly reduce pollution because “the airs and waters … cannot readily be fenced,” and so the problem of industrial waste would have to be addressed with “coercive laws.”
For all their political heterogeneity, his recommendations did share one thing in common: misanthropy. Insisting that the overexploitation of the commons was inevitable because of the incorrigible selfishness of human beings, he argued that the only solutions involved unitary ownership: the choice was between total privatization or complete expropriation by the state. In a later paper, he put it succinctly: it was “either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise.”
Hardin’s argument appealed to elites across the political spectrum, and his analysis became a guiding framework for the politics of resource management all over the world. According to Google Scholar, “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been cited a staggering 43,000 times. (For comparison’s sake, Francis Fukuyama’s notorious “End of History” argument, in book and article form, has been cited roughly 32,000 times.)
Hardin’s most immediate impact was on the environmental philosophy of capitalism. Starting in the 1970s, neoliberal economists made the tragedy of the commons into the centerpiece of their crusade to promote the free market as the only effective way to manage resources. Blaming environmental deterioration on the failure to enclose nature, economists and policymakers created a raft of new property rights—cap-and-trade schemes for emissions, privatization of water supplies, selling off national utilities, etc.—in an attempt to solve every social and environmental problem with laissez-faire economics.
Robert J. Smith, the economist who coined the phrase “free-market environmentalism,” began to use Hardin’s article to argue for privatization as a solution as early as 1970. In 1975, a symposium on natural-resource property rights at the University of New Mexico debated the tragedy of the commons with respect to the privatization of coal, water, ocean fisheries and endangered species. By 1979, the journal Literature of Liberty could devote a whole issue to “Property Rights and Natural Resource Management,” surveying the now voluminous writings on the subject. (Perhaps indicating the depth of the analysis, Hardin’s six-page essay was described by the editors as a “thorough treatment of this topic.”)
What a disaster. Coal companies aren’t deterred from destroying the rivers and forests of Appalachia because they own the mountains whose summits they blow to smithereens. Unlike farmers and herders, their livelihood does not derive from living things in complex ecosystems. They have mined fortunes from dead matter. What do they care about environmental stewardship? The rollback of environmental regulations and unleashing of market incentives over the past forty years has resulted in the most comprehensive degradation of natural resources in human history.
As for Hardin’s central suggestion, restricting the freedom to breed, it was adopted exactly as he prescribed in Communist China. After the revolution, Mao’s goal was to expand the population as rapidly as possible, in order to overwhelm capitalism with tens of millions of communists. He got his way. By 1970, China’s population had increased by nearly 300 million. In 1971, however, Mao was persuaded by some of Hardin’s fellow Malthusians to reverse course, and he abruptly introduced his “later, longer, fewer” campaign, exhorting later marriages, longer gaps between pregnancies and fewer children.
After Mao’s death in 1976, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, redoubled these efforts. Three years later, his government implemented the one-child policy, designed by the missile-defense expert and cybernetics theorist Song Jian. Women who had been denied access to birth control a few years earlier were now being subjected to abortions and sterilizations. In 1983 alone, a massive nationwide campaign resulted in 21 million sterilizations and fourteen million abortions, leaving family farms with too few people to work the land and creating perverse incentives for killing infant daughters. In 1989, Hardin noted approvingly that “there is no talk in China of a woman’s ‘right’ to reproduce or of married couples’ ‘right to privacy.’”
The resulting demographic imbalances—between old and young, and male and female—have provoked a predictable counter-reaction, and the Chinese government is once again promoting fertility. But there’s a hitch. The one-child policy gave two generations of women a shot at careers. This unintended feminism has proved fatal to the government’s natalist policies, and the birth rate has barely climbed back to replacement level.
In postcolonial socialist states, Hardin’s tragedy proved to be a postscript of their utopian political ambitions. When his article appeared in 1968, many newly independent nations were already pursuing versions of his anti-capitalist prescriptions for land management, transferring millions of acres of forest, grazing land and inshore fisheries to government ownership. Some of this land had been confiscated from the erstwhile colonial elites, but much of it was expropriated from villagers, nomads and indigenous people who had been managing the resources for centuries. Ironically, the outcome of these policies resembled Hardin’s overgrazed commons. 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. Resentment on the part of villagers whose land had been expropriated contributed to a spiraling pattern of lawless extraction. Soon, environmental degradation threatened the livelihoods of the people of the region, a pattern that was repeated over much of South Asia.
By the late Seventies, it was abundantly clear in some quarters that the strategies Hardin had advocated were failing. One reason was that he had mischaracterized the problem: his abstract account of an overgrazed pasture bore little resemblance to commons in the real world. Fieldworkers familiar with actual common-property arrangements pointed out that they were not in fact tragic free-for-alls. Instead, they were rich webs of sustainable use rights, many of which were in the process of being shredded by Hardinesque schemes of nationalization or enclosure.
At first, challenges to Hardin’s thesis were scattered and piecemeal. By the mid-Eighties, however, many of his critics had joined forces under the leadership of the political scientists Elinor and Vincent Ostrom. Vincent Ostrom was a close contemporary of Hardin’s whose environmental concerns were similarly shaped by the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. Most notably, the two men shared a commitment to game theory as a tool for modeling collective action problems. But whereas Hardin used game theory to conduct a misanthropic thought experiment, Ostrom used it to understand real-world conditions.
Born in Washington state in 1919, Vincent Ostrom studied political science at UCLA, and eventually became a lecturer at the University of Wyoming. While studying local land management, he became intrigued by the way ranchers moved their cattle herds between private land in the winter and common land in the summer. Examining the very situation that Hardin would later present as inexorable tragedy, Ostrom observed how the ranchers made it work by “associating privately to commonly establish and enforce property rights.” Ostrom soon moved back to California to pursue his doctorate in political science at UCLA, where he wrote a dissertation exploring the institutional complexity of local water governance.
Later, he started teaching graduate seminars in which students had to examine local resource management in depth. Sometime around 1959, Ostrom assigned the Los Angeles West Basin to a student called Elinor Scott. Born Elinor Awan in 1933, the daughter of a Hollywood set designer whose work had evaporated during the Depression, Scott had worked three jobs to support herself while earning an undergraduate degree in political science at UCLA, only to discover that prospective employers were interested in nothing but her secretarial skills. Married to a man who did not support her intellectual aspirations, she nevertheless ended up back at UCLA in 1957 as one of four women who had been grudgingly admitted to that year’s cohort of forty graduate students in political science. Scott was 26; Ostrom was forty. After divorcing their respective spouses, they married in 1964.
A year later, Elinor Ostrom submitted a dissertation about how Los Angeles groundwater users had solved “a very, very tough problem.” Because of a pumping race between companies withdrawing water competitively without regard for the long-term consequences, LA’s groundwater was at risk of becoming undrinkable due to saltwater incursion. A 1944 U.S. Geological Survey report declared the whole basin to be on the brink of ruin. But in December of that year, the water companies met in response to the imminent crisis and agreed to form an association. They published a newsletter, recruited engineers to analyze the problem, drafted legislation, got it passed and created special districts to monitor and tax all the water they withdrew.
The details of the negotiations are mind-numbingly complex, and they must have been arduous to enact, but the result is a well-managed system that still supplies water to millions of Southern Californians. Tackling the same problem of overdrawing the water supply that Hardin had lamented in his 1949 textbook, Ostrom explained how the stakeholders had solved it. Above all, there was nothing Hardinesque about the solution. As Ostrom later wrote in her best-known book Governing the Commons (1990), “No one ‘owns’ the basins themselves. The basins are managed by a polycentric set of limited-purpose governmental enterprises whose governance includes active participation by private water companies and voluntary producer associations. This system is neither centrally owned nor centrally regulated.” It was the detailed story of a tragedy of the commons averted.
In 1965, Vincent Ostrom became a professor of political science at Indiana University. Elinor soon joined the faculty as well, and the couple remained in Bloomington, refusing offers from other universities as their reputations grew. There they co-founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in 1973, which sponsored scores of case studies of common resource management—of meadowland in the Swiss Alps, irrigation in the Philippines, fisheries in Sri Lanka and the aforementioned forests in Nepal—identifying the features that lead to sustainability of the commons and those that contribute to fragility and breakdown. Their choice of the title “workshop” reflected their artisanal approach: for the Ostroms—who designed their own house and built much of their furniture—policymaking and institution-building were crafts that should make use of local materials and traditions. In 2009, Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics, becoming the first woman ever to receive it. A scant three years later, at the age of 78, she died of pancreatic cancer, followed shortly after by her husband.
The fundamental point of the Ostroms’ research on the commons is the distinction between “open-access” conditions—such as Hardin’s tragic pastureland—and careful, rule-bound management of natural resources, examples of which are found the world over. Governing the Commons showcases a series of these. Some are of ancient origin, such as Spain’s Tribunal de las Aguas, “a water court that has for centuries met on Thursday mornings outside the Apostles’ Door of the Cathedral of Valencia.” A whole chapter is dedicated to the de novo creation of the Central and West Basin Water Replenishment District in Los Angeles in 1959, the subject of Elinor’s dissertation. Yet another chapter is devoted to analyzing “several cases of outright failure,” including the acrimonious negotiations that continue to undermine good management of the San Bernardino County water supply adjacent to LA.
The cases in the book were selected from among the hundreds that the Ostroms had examined over the years. Although heterogeneous in other ways, all the examples were based in grassroots organizing, as exemplified by a Turkish inshore fishing ground threatened with collapse from overuse. By the early Seventies, competition for the most productive trawling spots had become violent. Faced with social and economic breakdown, the fishers began to experiment with ways to share the catch more fairly. A decade of trial and error resulted in an ingenious set of rules for rotating boats throughout the season, spacing the trawling grounds far enough apart so that production is optimized, and giving every boat an equal chance at the highest-yielding spots. A list of fishing grounds is endorsed by every fisher at the beginning of the season, and shared with the local mayor and gendarme. Despite the power of local officials to impose fines for violations, monitoring and enforcement of the rules ended up being carried out primarily by the fishers themselves.
In their pursuit of practical guidelines for organizing commons management regimes, the Ostroms derived some abstract models and rules from their observations of real-world success and failure. Like Hardin, they deployed game theory to this end. Their version of game theory was more variegated, generous and sophisticated than his, but it still featured the autonomous, self-interested individuals of classical economics, figuring out how to solve collective problems for the sake of ecological sustainability.
For some on the left, the fact that the Ostroms base their models on the assumption of individual self-interest is enough to condemn the approach as hopelessly neoliberal. I submit that this is precisely the strength of their commons governance research. As Elinor Ostrom put it in one of her syllabi: “How can fallible human beings achieve and sustain self-governing ways of life and self-governing entities as well as sustaining ecological systems at multiple scales?” The assumption of selfishness is a critical analytical tool for answering this question. Without it, it is all but impossible to implement strategies for overcoming such perennial difficulties as the free-rider problem. If you’ve ever lived in a communal house and noticed how dirty dishes pile up in the sink during the day, you will know what I mean. With apologies to Audre Lorde, this is one case where we can and must use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.
As it happens, the Ostroms’ research has yielded such a wealth of information about what works and what doesn’t that psychologists have begun to formulate some practical wisdom from the data. One group, for example, has identified “four core motives for decision making in social dilemmas: understanding, belonging, trusting and self-enhancing.” None of this is particularly utopian. It turns out that we needn’t be selfless communards in order to escape the trap of Hardin’s “rational” herdsmen. 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.
One of the most salutary effects of the Bloomington School research is the way it redefines the idea of property. This insight has been extended by the legal scholar Carol M. Rose, who has brought an analysis of the commons to Anglo-American law. While the Indiana Workshop was studying the management of grasslands and water sources, Rose began to consider the commons in legal history. She was drawn to the topic by a 1970 decision by the California Supreme Court establishing the public right to use California’s beaches for recreation. As a result of this decision, beaches that were not privately owned were made over to the public in their entirety, while stretches already in private hands were forced to grant public access at least to the strand between high and low tide.
From the point of view of conventional property law, there’s something paradoxical about this arrangement. As Rose put it, “public property” is an oxymoron: “Things left open to the public are not property at all, but rather its antithesis.” In pursuit of an answer to the riddle, she began to rummage around in legal history. Eventually she unearthed a line of precedent in common law upholding public property in the name of prosperity and pleasure. At the heart of these justifications she discovered a startlingly generous philosophy. For common ownership to prevail in the courts, “the public’s claim had to be superior to that of the private owner, because the properties themselves were most valuable when used by indefinite and unlimited numbers of persons—by the public at large.”
In a pun on Hardin’s famous phrase, Rose titled a 1986 article on these public ownership regimes “The Comedy of the Commons,” and her work is suffused with cautious optimism about our ability to solve environmental problems using the legal standard of unlimited social good. If her analysis is correct, property law is a negotiable set of arrangements tied to questions about human flourishing. As environmental problems worsen, these sorts of “public good” arguments for stewardship of common resources will presumably become more compelling. Under the proper conditions, even in an advanced capitalist economy, enclosure can be forestalled and indeed reversed, in the name of life, health and sustainability. According to this view, property is not a monolith. Rather, it is a porous set of use, access and exclusion rights that can be rethought and remade without invoking the suffocating dichotomies of capitalism versus socialism. For Rose, as for the Ostroms, the question is simply: What works?
The right to the beach is a recent example, and a very Californian one, but examples of public ownership reach back through the centuries. Predictably enough, the best-established precedent in our legal system is the transport infrastructure used in commerce. Rooted in what Rose calls, with a gentle skepticism, the “overly roseate Enlightenment view” of the civilizing effects of commerce, roads and waterways are owned by all who use them.
As a lifelong urbanite, I found it rather empowering to learn that we city-dwellers own the streets. According to Rose, swimming at a public beach, riding the bus, enjoying the shade of street trees, using a bike lane or taking the kids to a park are all examples of the urban commons. In line with this ethos, there is currently a whole shareable cities movement afoot: community gardens, city farms, car sharing, bike sharing, art cooperatives, surplus food redistribution, citizen composting, community water management, street-tree planting, recycling centers, maker spaces, little free libraries, skateboard parks, graffiti galleries, free autonomous internet access, repair cafés, improvements in public transportation—the list gets longer every day. To the extent that the Green New Deal is an urban infrastructure project, it is already underway.
In her essay “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Naomi Klein asserts that the only things that will save us are “an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep empathy.” I imagine that these sentiments reflect her cast of mind, and I salute the fierce purity of her commitment. But I don’t think we can afford to wait for this beautiful transformation among humans to occur on a large scale.
For Klein and many others on the green left, nature is caught in a Manichean struggle between the forces of light and darkness. For me, the chiaroscuro is a good deal less intense. From annual long-haul flights to the laptop upon which I type these words, my own incessant contributions to ecosystem destruction make it hard for me to divide the world into friends and enemies. I don’t see rampant capitalist greed versus selfless socialist generosity; I see most of us muddling along, full of contradictions, trying to be reasonably good people, telling ourselves self-justifying stories about our actions and motivations, full of fierce opinions about the state of the world, but principally focused at the day-to-day level on those people whose happiness we directly affect.
Anyway, self-interest is not always the enemy of environmentalism. While the out-of-control bushfires in Australia raged, Laurence Fink, the CEO of BlackRock Funds, the world’s largest asset manager, announced that the firm would be moving away from fossil fuels. This is surely not because Fink has discovered his deep wellspring of empathy, but instead because coal and oil threaten to become stranded assets. When people find themselves directly affected, their search for solutions is more easily mobilized. So far, electorates have mostly failed to vote for Green New Deal-style policies, but there is still much that can be done at a local level to steward our shared resources. The Ostroms caution that we will have to build institutions that promote transparency, communication and accountability. There will have to be meetings. And with meetings come conflict and frustration and really annoying interpersonal dynamics. But the message of five decades of research on commons governance is ultimately hopeful: we don’t have to despair of human nature any more than we have to alter or idealize it. From BlackRock to Standing Rock, we can work this thing out, just the way we are.
Talking of self-interest, Carol Rose explains that it is the potential for public enjoyment that constitutes one of the legal bases for the common ownership of beaches, parks and city squares. With vast areas of public space having suddenly been declared off-limits under pandemic lockdown, Rose’s lawyerly arguments about the social value of recreation have taken on a new poignance. Maybe we will learn to value these assets more and work to expand and protect them, as is already being mooted in quarantining cities from Milan to Brighton. In “The Comedy of the Commons,” Rose hints that one path toward a greener future might consist in simply beating capitalism at the pleasure game. Luckily, we have some tremendous advantages on that score, including the earthly delights of fresh water, clean air and wild beauty, not to mention the hitherto taken-for-granted benefits of a stable climate.
Last summer, I spent four days in London, during which my mother and I twice visited our favorite haunt: Fulham Palace, the official residence of the Bishop of London for nearly thirteen hundred years. As we wandered happily through its gardens, it suddenly occurred to me that Fulham Palace—like California’s beaches—is a perfect example of “re-commoning.” Its luxury peaked in the Gilded Age, when the bishops of London became famous for their lavish garden parties. In 1916, however, in response to wartime food shortages, the Bishop ceded nearly two-thirds of the land to working-class people to farm. The resulting four hundred garden allotments exist to this day. In the Seventies, the process of de-enclosure was completed when the remaining thirteen acres of the estate were opened to the public.
It was July when we visited, and around the sunbaked walls espaliered apple and peach trees reached their arms to one another behind a dazzling array of flowers. A path shaded by centuries-old wisteria bisected the middle of the garden. On one side of the path, young fruit trees, their branches laden, stood in a gently rippling sea of tall golden grass. A roped-off area contained three wooden beehives. One formally planted section filled the air with the spicy smell of box hedge; beyond it, flowers and vegetables grew shoulder to shoulder in orderly profusion, blooms nodding with the weight of visiting insects. Pea vines spiraled up willow boughs. Children chased pigeons over the lush grass while their parents lazed in the shade of the trees.
Leaving Fulham Palace gardens for the roar and bustle of the streets, it can seem as fleeting and inconsequential as a dream, but while we were drinking in the afternoon’s late summer loveliness, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan was leading the ceremonies that secured the status of the city as a national park, the first urban area to be so designated. Part of a movement inaugurated by geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison, the idea is to engage local communities in protecting and restoring London’s abundant rivers, canals, brooks, trees, wetlands, parks, hedges and wildflowers. It is a vision of local, polycentric, bottom-up, community-led governance of the urban commons.
For Karl Marx, the enclosure of the English commons was the original sin of capitalism; Fulham Palace tells a quite different story. It has always been an “avant-garden.” The seventh-century moat that originally demarcated the estate preceded the peak of the enclosure movement by nearly a thousand years. Its arboretum of exotic tree species was planted a full century before the much better known Kew Gardens was founded. My mother tells me that when the glass houses were erected in the 1870s, the gardeners heated them with the warmth of compost breaking down, an example of a “circular economy” long before the term was coined. The 1916 allotments were granted to the people of London in perpetuity, and now have a waiting list five years long. My hope is that its current incarnation as a jewel in the urban commons will also prove to be prophetic, its place in the middle of London pointing to a future in which railway-side allotments, urban backyards, public parks, rewilded verges, city farms and street forests join up to form a continuous wildlife habitat, espaliered on a vision of the environmental commons, stewarded for the benefit of all.
Art credit: Asunción Molinos Gordo, “Accumulation by Disposession,” Delfina Foundation, 2019