By Eva-Maria Simms
Hardin, in The Tragedy of the Commons (1968) has argued that free, common spaces will inevitably be ruined by the selfish greed of the members of the commons. “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons” (p. 1244) Garbage is a step towards the ruin of our common spaces and a marker of the ethical failure of community members to pay their fair share and take only what the communal spaces can bear. It is a direct sign of the “tragedy of the commons”. However, Hardin’s argument about the inevitable destruction of commonly held places (like state parks and shared grazing land) through capitalist greed already assumes that the traditional social commons, which regulates the use of shared spaces on the local level, has been destroyed. But not all traditional commons’ have undergone Hardin’s tragedy, and I agree with Cox (1985) that the ruin of common spaces lies in the bioethical failure of communities to understand and manage the commons. Communities that understand, manage, and care for their common spaces have been able to protect the integrity of their natural places. One example of a commons that has survived since the 17th century comes from the Siegerland, the German region where I was born and raised.
The Siegerland is a hilly, forested, barren landscape in central Germany where tough, stubborn people have eked out their living growing rye and buckwheat, potatoes and root vegetables on small, steep fields. 2500 years ago the Celts built their iron smelters close to water sources and began the tradition of making charcoal by building Kohlenmeiler, which were wood piles that were carefully stacked and covered with clay and allowed to slow-burn for months in order to produce a very hot burning coal. The Celts left the Siegerland after all the beech woods were cut down. It took the forest 800 years to recover. The need for charcoal for metalworking and the use of tree bark in the tanning industry led over the centuries to deforestation of many places in Europe, and the Siegerland was no exception.
In the heavily forested Siegerland the villages began to regulate the use of their common woods when, once again, their forests were threatened by the greed of individual land owners in the 17th century. The Hauberg was created when they incorporated all the surrounding forest land into the village bounds, compensated the land-owners with shares in the commonly held land’s productivity, and founded village societies that were responsible for regulating and managing the use of the forest. Village families used their Hauberg in an 18-year cycle, reaping different benefits from the trees and the land every year in rotation: growing rye in clear cut sections, harvesting firewood in older growth, feeding pigs on oak mast, selling mature wood and bark to the iron, charcoal, and tanning industries. The shares were passed down through the generations. The most important principle they followed was to take only so much out of nature as grows back, so that future generations would not be endangered. They called this Nachhaltigkeit, which means something like “to endure over a longer time”, which we today call sustainability.
The Haubergsgesellschaft, the village organization that oversaw the use of the village forest, avoided the tragedy of the commons for almost 400 years. It teaches us that the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable. Implied in its success is also a lesson for urban nature stewardship: the tragedy of the commons lies not in the inevitable destruction of the commons, but in the inability of many communities to understand that they have a commons they are responsible for. As long as our urban nature spaces remain invisible to the adjacent communities they are also not appreciated and claimed as part of the neighborhood commons. No matter how many state laws and city ordinances regulate the use of urban forests, they will be ruined unless the local community reclaims them, makes them newly visible, and includes them within the imagined boundary of their neighborhood landscape.
Cox, S. J. B. (1985). No Tragedy of the Commons. Environmental Ethics, 7(1), 49-61.
Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.