"The Tragedy of the Commons": how ecofascism was smuggled into mainstream thought

Garrett Hardin's 1968 Science essay "The Tragedy of the Commons" is one of the most widely assigned readings in the past ten years' worth of university syllabi; notionally, it describes how property that is held in common is prone to overuse and exhaustion, while privatization creates an owner who has an incentive to serve as a wise steward over the resource.

Hardin was an ardent nativist and eugenicist, and the "The Tragedy of the Commons" was Hardin's jumping-off point for full-blown ecofascism: a strain of ecological thinking that treats humans as a kind of cancer on the Earth, doomed to grow out of control until they trigger a mass die-off, which ecofascists are committed to shaping such that the people who are exterminated in the collapse are brown and Black "foreigners" and "invaders," while "white people" of European descent are spared, to serve as wise stewards who oversee a new, sustainable era of human relations with the natural world (the Christchurch killer self-identified as an ecofascist and attributed his mass killings of Muslim people to a desire to rid the Earth of nonwhite people in order to avert the climate crisis).

After a generation of climate denial, the US and European right is in the midst of a fast pivot to ecofascism, simultaneously acknowledging the seriousness and imminence of the climate crisis, but planning to address it by exerminating non-white people. Hardin's writings -- both "Tragedy" and his more explicitly eugenic, fascist works -- are gaining a new prominence as central texts of the ecofascist movement.

One of Hardin's less-known but important works is Lifeboat Ethics, which deploys the timeworn authoritarian metaphor of the "lifeboat" as justification for exterminating racialized and poor people.

Hardin's work serves as a greased slide from environmental thought ("humans abuse their natural environment") to sociopathic capitalism ("helping poor people just encourages them to have more babies they can't afford") to full-on exterminist genocide ("there's only room for some of us on this planet, and the sooner we get rid of the surplus, the better").

We are reaching a "peak indifference" tipping point in the climate debate, where it's no longer possible to deny the reality of the climate crisis. I think that many of us assumed that when that happened, we'd see a surge of support for climate justice, the diversion of resources from wealth extraction for the super-rich to climate remediation and defense centered on the public good. But that expectation overestimated the extent to which climate denial was motivated by mere greed.

Eugenics has always been inequality's handmaiden: the only moral justification for waxing fat while others starve is a belief in your own innate superiority (see Trump and his talk of "good blood"). Climate denial has always been a function of greed, and where there is greed, genocide is always lurking in the shadows.

Hardin’s 1974 essay “Lifeboat Ethics” also remains influential on the far right. In an anthology assembled by Hardin and titled Managing the Commons, a footnote to the essay, published under the title “Living on a Lifeboat,” complains that the original title was simply “Lifeboat Ethics,” and that an editor at Psychology Today added the “inflammatory” subtitle “The Case Against Helping the Poor.” Hardin was consistent in his focus on the threat of the world’s wretched poor, however, and keepers of Hardin’s legacy have emphasized the importance of this thread. His metaphor—that the finite planet is a lifeboat with a limited carrying capacity which necessitates making hard choices about the poor souls out in the water—has found direct expression in the European migrant crisis, where flotillas of refugees continue to cross the Mediterranean seeking asylum, many drowning in the attempt.

In the midst of it, a white supremacist writer referenced the essay in an article for VDare, writing that “Hardin’s prescriptions for averting the Malthusian catastrophe—they included eugenics, an end to welfare and foreign aid, and allowing famines to take their course—were too strong for most people.” Another article invoking Hardin on stopping the “refugee invasion” by a Canadian nativist writer was reprinted on the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer which now features a demographic countdown clock on its sidebar. The Finnish ecofascist Pentti Linkola once put a finer point on Hardin’s metaphor, writing: “What to do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.”

Where Hardin’s legacy is most embraced today, if not explicitly referenced, is at the border. In a 1997 letter to the ACLU denouncing the civil rights organization for defending the Fourteenth Amendment’s citizenship clause, Hardin wrote about being “daily confronted with hordes of highly pregnant Mexicans coming across the border at the last minute and having their babies in American hospitals—at American expense,” anticipating the rise to prominence of the nativist “anchor baby” talking point by nearly a decade, and the El Paso massacre by two.

First as Tragedy, Then as Fascism [Alex Amend/The Baffler]

(via Naked Capitalism)