The Tragedy of No Commons

How one white supremacist’s rejection of economic common sense stuck

Douglas Rushkoff

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I don’t usually get upset when I see The New York Times screw up. Most of the journalists are trying their best to get things right, pressured for time, and scared for their jobs in a shrinking industry.

Still, that’s no excuse for David Leonhardt’s companion piece this morning to an otherwise rigorous report on groundwater depletion in America. They called it “Uncharted Waters: The threat to groundwater is a classic tragedy of the commons.”

In the piece, he correctly explains how if every person and every business use all the water they want, there won’t be enough. But he goes on to call this phenomenon “The Tragedy of the Commons,” crediting ecologist Garrett Hardin — a nativist, anti-immigration eugenicist. As he wrote as late as 1991, “Diversity is the opposite of unity, and unity is a prime requirement for national survival.” Or “popular anthropology came along with its dogma that all cultures are equally good and valuable. To say otherwise was to be narrow-minded and prejudiced, to be guilty of the sin of ethnocentrism… . That which was foreign and strange, particularly if persecuted, became the ideal. Black became beautiful.” And “My position is that this idea of a multiethnic society is a disaster. The human species may not self-destruct; but what we like to call ‘human civilization’ may.” (All quotes available on the Southern Poverty Law Center webpage Yes, donate.)

As for the commons, well, he was not writing about the commons at all. He was writing about chaos and over-extraction. His concern was overpopulation, particularly by non-Europeans who would use up all of white people’s resources. So he argued that we should seal up borders, stop giving any aid to poor nations, and purge cultural diversity from the US. Otherwise we risked “passive genocide” of whites by people of color who used up all the stuff. (No, this is not the environmentalist you’re looking for.)

What he realized, in a sort of Malthusian, Club-of-Rome-meets-Steve-Bannon way, is that if everyone takes whatever they want, there won’t be anything left. And he called this “The Tragedy of the Commons.” But this situation does not describe a commons at all. A commons is when a group of people…

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Douglas Rushkoff

Author of Survival of the Richest, Team Human, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://teamhuman.fm