In a classic article published in 1968, Garrett Hardin argued that most environmental problems stem from a single cause: the misuse of resources that are owned in common. [69]Since the air, the water, most species of mammals and fish and public lands have no private owners, they have no protectors or defenders. The use of these resources creates private benefits. But their misuse results in costs that are borne collectively – which means by no one inparticular. As a result, people who use the "commons" bear only a small portion of the social costs of their own actions.

The problem is not new. It has been around for as long as human beings have occupied the planet. Take the case of commonly owned grazing land. If a single cattle herder conserves some grass for the coming year, the odds are small that he will derive any benefit from that action – since the grass is then available for consumption by all of the other herders. With commonly owned grazing land, no single herder can reap the full benefits of his "good" behavior. Nor does he bear the full costs of his "bad" behavior. Thus all herders find it in their self-interest to overgraze the land, even though in the long run all are worse off as a result.

Hardin's analysis can easily be extended to other environmental problems. Most of us wouldn't even consider dumping trash in our neighbor's privately owned backyard. But since air and water are commonly owned resources to which we have free access, we find it in our self-interest to use them as dumping grounds for all manner of waste. Private timber companies are often exemplary environmental stewards of their own land. Indeed, much of what we know about forest management comes from pioneering discoveries by private companies. [70] By contrast, some of these same companies have caused environmental harm in the federally owned commons of the U.S. forests. The lessons can also be applied to endangered species:

  • One hundred years ago, there were three billion passenger pigeons and very few chickens. But because chickens were privately owned, whereas pigeons were common property, today there are three billion chickens and the passenger pigeon is extinct. [71]

  • Two hundred years ago, buffalo greatly outnumbered cattle in America. Today, privately owned cattle flourish, while the buffalo is almost extinct. [72]

  • In those African countries where elephants are owned in common, their numbers are dwindling rapidly – the victims of poachers in search of ivory. But in India, where elephants are owned by villagers, they are almost never killed for their tusks. [73]

What can be done about the tragedy of the commons? To many reactionary environmentalists, the answer is to change human nature – to remake humans so they no longer act in their own self-interest. "We need a transformation of the human spirit," says John Boorman (British Green who directed the movies Hope and Glory and The Emerald Forest.) "If the human heart can be changed, then everything can be changed." [74] But since there is not the slightest chance that human nature really will be changed, the reactionaries invariably turn to government.

Why Government Solutions Often Don't Work. Most environmentalists, regardless of other differences, agree on one thing: U.S. government agencies charged with protecting the environment have done a poor job. And this is a judgment about the most environmentally conscious country in the world. In every other country, government management is even worse.

  • In an internal study at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), staffers were asked to rank EPA programs in order of their environmental importance.

  • When this ranking was compared to a ranking of programs based on the amount of money the EPA spends, the findings were almost the reverse of each other.

The EPA spent the most on those programs which were politically popular and very little on those which might advance environmental objectives. [75] This finding was echoed in an outside review of the EPA by scholars at Harvard University. [76]

Studies of other government agencies also have documented a poor environmental record. These include the U.S. Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Federal Highway Administration and the World Bank. The results of some of these studies will be discussed below.

The problems of government mismanagement of environmental resources do not arise because government has too little power. As noted above, even worse problems exist in the Soviet Union, where government power has been enormous. In 1921, Lenin signed a decree prohibiting any development of natural resources in Soviet national parks. Yet under the pressure of five-year plans, bureaucrats increasingly saw protected resources as raw material for economic growth. Only Lenin's personal interest prevented complete surrender to the development-at-any-cost mentality. Once the Stalinists came to power, Lenin's concerns were totally ignored. [77]

The principal reason why government solutions usually don't work is that the political process is itself a "commons." [78] People who support bad policies bear only a small part of the costs of those policies. The vast bulk of the costs are borne by others. On the other hand, people who support good policies reap only a small portion of the benefits. As a result, the pursuit of political self-interest all too often results in environmental harm.

Progressive environmentalists know that we cannot successfully reach environmental goals by substituting a "political commons" for an "economic commons." In fact, trying to achieve environmental goals by simply turning the problem over to government often creates even more environmental destruction.

Solving Problems Through Market-Based Institutions. A primary reason why private property came into existence was to solve the "commons" problems. For example, in the early West, cattle ranchers established private property rights on the open range. Cattle management associations were -formed to enforce these rights and to arrange for compensation when one rancher's cattle grazed on another's land. They also protected ranchers' rights in the cattle by warding off cattle thieves. To help enforce grazing rights, branding was introduced and cowboys were hired as human fences. And because the costs of enforcing these arrangements were so high, innovators had strong incentives to find a cheaper solution – thus leading to the invention of barbed wire. [79]

Today, the solution to the problems of the open range seems quite simple. But in an earlier era it was comparable to some of our most difficult "commons" problems today. The problem of the open range was solved because it was in people's self-interest to find solutions and because they had the freedom to implement those solutions.

Can the lessons of cattle ranching be applied to modern-day environmental problems? Progressive environmentalists believe that in many cases they can. The message coming to our shores from virtually every country on every continent is: markets work far better than government bureaucracies. Cognizant of that message, progressive environmentalists seek ways of creating market-based institutions within which people will find it in their self-interest to solve environmental problems.