Charlotte Dawe: Biodiversity crisis—a tragedy of the commons or merely a symptom of capitalism?

An environmental campaigner calls for collective action to protect nature

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      By Charlotte Dawe

      Somewhere just off the B.C. coast, commercial fishing vessels deploy 1,300-feet-long nets to scoop up migrating salmon returning to spawn.

      Meanwhile, community members write down zeros representing loss in once salmon-bearing streams, and elsewhere, in a boardroom, an elected official curses the “commons”.

      The tragedy of the commons was introduced to me at a young age. I learned how unfairly positioned migrating fish are because jurisdictions have boundaries but species don’t. Because of this species inevitably fall through the cracks plunging to extinction.

      Economists describe the tragedy of the commons by saying it occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain. I was told no matter what’s done locally, a common resource like fish will always be exploited by others so we might as well get it while we can.

      If we’re willing to shrug off the fact the oceans will have more plastic than fish by 2050 simply because that’s the way of the commons, perhaps we need a new way. Maybe what we’re told is the problem is actually just a more digestible tale for corporations than the truth.

      The truth is it’s not the tragedy of the commons, it’s the tragedy of capitalism.

      The commons refers to food, unpolluted air, clean drinking water, healthy wildlife populations, old forests, and carbon-sequestering wetlands, just to name a few. All are victims of unfettered neoliberal capitalism and the colonial institutions enforcing it.

      Ecologist Garrett Hardin first coined the term, comparing people to selfish herders. He suggested a farmer would send cows to graze the best grass out of worry that the neighbours will get it first, insisting humans are inherently selfish. Instead of asking why farmers are in cut-throat competition with their neighbours, he called it a fact and put a name to it.

      When I hear this example, my conclusion isn’t that people are selfish, it’s that the system is flawed. When people are forced to compete in a system requiring many to fail so a few can succeed, they may have no choice but to behave selfishly. Capitalism forces out the worst in us—it rewards selfishness and greed. Under capitalism, humility, science, ethics and morals flow freely out of decision making to be replaced by an unbounded thirst for profit.

      This is a systematic failure, not a human one. We must remember that.

      Not surprisingly Hardin was a racist eugenicist and white nationalist. Later he’d promote an idea he called “lifeboat ethics”. Since global resources are finite, he believed the rich should throw poor people overboard to keep their boat above water. So why are we still listening to his nauseating and incorrect analysis of managing common goods?

      Because it protects capitalism.

      A solution to the grazing problem might be that governments support farmers with a baseline level of income or insurance for loss years. This would mean farmers wouldn’t be in volatile competition with their neighbour, so they wouldn’t need to damage ecosystems beyond repair to stay afloat. When make or break competition is removed from the system, so are selfish tendencies. When everyone’s basic needs and security are ensured, it gives room for a system that rewards reciprocity and encourages respect for land, water, and each other.

      Under capitalism the inclination to blame others exists in companies and governments responsible for the decline of a common. It’s not me, it’s you.

      In the case of caribou in B.C., the federal Species At Risk Act should give these animals a good shot at survival. But it hasn’t. The provincial and federal government have been in a synchronised combative dance since 2003, dodging responsibility required by law and throwing it back onto the other. Frankly it’s embarrassing. I’ve sat in government meetings where the logging representatives blame snowmobilers for declining caribou, snowmobilers blame mining companies, and the mining companies blame the government.

      Companies are steadfastly against doing anything that will impact their bottom line, even if they’ve caused the problem. Under capitalism, a company that takes necessary responsibility to protect wildlife and wilderness would fail. So instead, corporations squeeze every penny to increase profits. This means reckless environmental practices, layoffs replacing people with automation, and a refusal to save wilderness for the planet’s and humanity's sake.

      This is a failing system. We need collective action to protect the commons, action that’s not dictated based on the bottom line but rather based on social justice and community and environmental health.

      We need to protect the commons from the blundering force of capitalism with a paradigm shift. We must set baseline levels for environmental protection that exceed the bare minimum an ecosystem needs to function. We need a species at risk law here in B.C. to protect species from the hammer of corporations who’ve already caused many to disappear. We must change the framework companies are allowed to exist within.

      A company that can only operate in a way that drives species extinct shouldn’t be allowed to operate at all. We need to stop excusing extinction with tragedy of the commons, when the real tragedy is that under modern day capitalism, morally and intellectually bankrupt corporations run the world.

      Charlotte Dawe is a conservation and policy campaigner with the Wilderness Committee. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.