Sustainable development and property rights

Focus on “The Tragedy of the commons” by Garret Hardin

by P.-E. Bouillot

The Tragedy of the commons describes a class of phenomena concerning the use of a shared limited resource by a population. This theory seems to be close to the ideas of sustainable development. It explains how a competition between private interest and common interest to the access of this resource drives to the ruin of it. The expression of Tragedy of the commons comes from the title of an article written by the biologist Garrett Hardin and published in Science in 1969.

Hardin’s theory takes part to the debate around the emergence of sustainable development. It seems that the concept was born in the 60’s -70’s which was a period of intense reflection about the future of the world. As in the book entitled Limit of Growth published by the Club of Rome and The Population B by Paul Ehrlich, Garret Hardin studied the question of how a growing population can live in a limited world without affecting the environment and the quality of human life. The authors agreed to this question and the purpose to follow, which would be named sustainable development in the 80’s, but they suggested different ways to solve this problem.

The originality of Hardin’s theory is to demonstrate that this problem has no technical solution, but demands a lot “in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality”. In his article, he criticizes the survival of the philosophy of the freedom in a commons. According to Hardin, this freedom is not pursuing the best interest for the society. Among other examples, he explains that the “freedom of the seas” bring “species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction”, because in this situation, individuals are acting independently without thinking about the long-term consequences for the commons.

For Hardin, commons like National Parks have to be kept “as a public property, but allocate the right to enter them” or be sold as private properties. He explains that the private property is a limited way to avert the tragedy of the commons, because individuals are conscious of the consequences of their actions on the good. Even if it is difficult to fence some commons like air and water, the bad consequences like pollution can be limited “by coercive laws and taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated”. But Hardin also thinks that pollution is a consequence of the population growth, which cannot be solved in full by the private property. That is why Hardin calls for” a redefinition of property rights” and liabilities.

Property rights and liability seem to be relevant legal tools to “legislate temperance”. We can ask ourselves if the balance between private property and common property has a link with sustainable development, especially in terms of governance of land in the food system. These questions will be discussed in the doctoral seminar in Lyon and more thoroughly studied in a thesis.

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