You cannot do only one thing.
— Garrett Hardin

John Michael Greer has been posting on the need to use less and thus prepare for the time of scarcity. On the face of it, it is a simple and sound argument. If you weatherize your house, put in a wood stove and a solar water heater, when oil and gas get expensive and hard to get, your household will be much more resilient in the face of hard times than those of neighbors who failed to prepare. So far, so good.

But JMG has made bigger claims for his push to “use less.” He asserts that such behavior will conserve scarce resources, and even though he admits the dent will be small, he insists that something is better than nothing. When I brought in other ideas, he used some rather ungracious words for my reasoning. To be fair, I was not sufficiently clear to make myself understood even to friendly commenters. Let me try again, especially since this fallacious approach is so common nowadays when caring, eager-to-do-something people think they can “save the planet” by personal frugalizing. Sorry, folks, it does not work that way.

Imagine that you live in an alpine village at the foot of a mountain covered by a lush meadow held in common by fifty villagers who for generations have grazed cows there. A long time ago, the limit was set at a hundred cows. Lately, there has been some concern that the pasture is not as lush as formerly. The summers have been hotter and the rain less plentiful than usual. The pasture is getting overgrazed. But there is resistance among the villagers to rethink the “100 cows” limit; after all, this would impact their flourishing artisanal cheese business. For the time being, inertia rules. You are a particularly caring villager, and want to do the right thing. Perhaps you hope to set a good example, and in any case to make a bit of a difference for the meadow. So you pull back, eat your other cow, and put only one out on the pasture. You sell less cheese and look for other ways to make do. What are the consequences of your action?

Your neighbor has been looking to expand his cheese production, and noticing that you are putting out only one cow, he puts out three. So in terms of the pasture, your act is a wash… it is getting overgrazed at the same rate as before. You have, however, suffered personally. Not only that; doing the right thing on your part has enabled your neighbor to do the wrong thing.

So is it true, as JMG claims, that doing something is better than nothing? Not when it comes to conserving a commons. Garrett Harding called it a tragedy, but he was wrong. Elinor Ostrom has shown that humans are perfectly capable of caring for a commons, described many real-world examples, and won a Nobel Prize for her work.

Ostrom identified several principles that enable effective commons care:

  • Clearly defined boundaries
  • Rules adapted to local conditions
  • Open participation in the decision-making process by all commons stakeholders
  • Effective monitoring by accountable monitors
  • Graduated sanctions for those who violate community rules
  • Cheap and easy access to mechanisms of conflict resolution
  • Self-determination of the community is respected by higher-levels of governance
  • In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises

In other words, the solution is community autonomy and close collaboration by the locals. The tragedy comes in when overeager green types assure us that a commons can be conserved one person at a time, and that doing an individual something is better than doing nothing. Neither is true. A commons can only be conserved by a common effort, by a web of agreements and mutual enforcements that work for all those who have a stake in the commons. There is no shortcut here. While individual frugalizing is necessary, it is not sufficient.

Greer is right in observing that when it comes to many aspects of the planetary commons, conservation is not getting done. He is wrong when he projects from that fact that nothing will be done, or can be done. He presents the analogy of a sinking ship where individuals who prepare and jump into the life boats in time are the ones to survive. But his analogy fails because the ship that is very slowly sinking is the only one we have, and while building little doomsteads on the deck will help individuals survive longer or better (if the social order holds) it will not do anything whatsoever to conserve the ship.

And isn’t conserving the good starship Earth the real point?