Maceo Carillo Martinet, Ph.D.
Recently, I was traveling in northern New Mexico with two other environmental scientists who work on restoring the land’s health. After passing miles of eroded land with barely any vegetation, one of the scientists lamented, “It’s sad to see the land so scarred and damaged like this.” The other scientist responded confidently, saying, “Yeah, it’s just another example of the tragedy of the commons. It’s the same old story throughout the Southwest.” His colleague seemed to agree.
“Another example of the tragedy of the commons”? The expression “tragedy of the commons” is used to describe the destruction of nature (pasture land, forests, coastal land, etc.) when humans manage nature as a common-use resource, open to any community member to use. According to Garret Hardin, the sociologist who coined the term in 1968, the reason nature is destined to be destroyed by man is because humans are fundamentally self-serving and greedy. The only way to avoid this tragedy, according to Dr. Hardin, is to manage nature, not as common-use lands or common-use waters but as a system of private property. If this sounds familiar, it should. The “tragedy of the commons” is one piece of the neoconservative belief system, a belief system bent on defunding public schools because a privatized system would be better, or that screams “freedom!” when you argue for the merits of a healthcare system, the bottom-line of which is the common good, not profit margins for a select few.
Not convinced that the degraded landscape we were passing near the town of Cuba was due to local indigenous communities’ use of the land, I did a little research. According to a survey done in 1877, that land was actually very healthy and productive grassland. At the time, it was managed under the Mexican ejido system, the Spanish word meaning communal-use lands, a system of land management very important to both Native American and Hispanic/Chicano communities. This land near Cuba had been used in various ways by the Navajo, Apache, Pueblo and Hispanic communities that made up the Ramón Vigil Land Grant; however, the lush green grassland there came to a crashing end by 1913. During the time leading up to its deterioration, the rights to access these grazing lands by the local ranching (agro-pastoral) communities were being stripped and given to wealthy private companies, primarily a few large cattle operators from Texas bent on making short-term profit by supplying meat to growing cities back East. According to Hal Rothman, who documented the cultural and environmental changes of the area, these industrial cattle operators wreaked havoc on the environment, bringing in herd sizes 10 times the size that the land could support. And because it is a desert, this environment is slower to recover. Although this is just the history of a small piece of land, it is emblematic of the whole southwestern United States during the late 19th- and early 20th centuries.
The real cause of the scarred land we drove through that day was not due to common people managing the land as the ejido; it was actually due to the tragedy of greed, privatization and impacts of capitalism, combined with a huge dosage of ecological ignorance. Since the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, there has been a flood of land privatization, speculation and outright theft in New Mexico. This was all facilitated by the US colonial/territorial government, at the time made up of unelected lawmakers and scheming entrepreneurs who cared little for the local cultures and economy or traditional land-use ethics. This is the true tragedy that helps explain why both the land and its people are deeply scarred.
The “tragedy of the commons” is not only used to belittle the common person and justify privatization but, as the story above illustrates, it also brings into question one’s faith in humanity. Ask yourself: are humans truly capable of taking care of the land in a sustainable way, or are we destined to destroy the land due to our self-centered tendencies? It seems to me that, in order for people to make this world a better place, we need to believe in the common good. We have to believe that we can work together and share equitably in nature without killing each other and the land. In short, we have to believe in a world different than what we are accustomed to. While I agree that there are many greedy people in the world, I do not believe that people are inherently greedy. In fact, the long history of humanity and recent research shows us that the opposite of the tragedy of the commons is true: that the best way to reach both ecological sustainability and social equality is to relate to nature very much like an ejido, where control and management of the common-use lands are in the hands of the local community that truly depends on it. This drive toward the well-being of everyone in the commons, including the commons itself, is our natural state and helps to explain why humanity is even still here.
Dr. Maceo Carrillo Martinet is an ecologist and educator. He works on environmental restoration, water conservation, and community-based education projects throughout New Mexico.