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The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons


Deforestation and the general despoliation of the planet continue to accelerate. It is often contended that overpopulation, playing itself out via a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, is the primary cause. It is not. The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is a quite pernicious myth. A resource ‘free-for-all’ can and does lead to environmental disasters. But throughout history, communal use and management of land and forests has often been extremely sustainable. One example can be seen in the ‘Women’s War’ in the 19th century Pyrenees.

As many trees have been felled in the last 50 years as in the whole of history before!

In 2006, in his magisterial book Deforesting the Earth, the Oxford historical geographer Michael Williams wrote: ‘the area cleared since 1950 has only just about come near the amount cleared before that.’ He was illustrating the fact that deforestation has been going on for centuries, indeed for millennia. Williams’ work has performed a great service by minutely and exhaustively showing us how and when deforestation occurred in different parts of the world. But what is perhaps more arresting is that it quite literally means that over the last half-century humans have cut down as many trees as they did in the whole of history before!

Major episodes of deforestation have happened at different times in different regions. Quite early on in the (at one time) fertile crescent, during the first millennium in China, in the Middle Ages and the early modern period in Europe, in the 18th and 19th centuries in North America, and in the 20th century in much of the rest of the world. There is no doubt that deforestation and ‘civilization’ have always gone hand in hand. The more advanced the civilization the faster the trees fall.

One persisting and pernicious myth about environmental degradation in general, and deforestation in particular, is that the root cause is almost always overpopulation. According to Berkeley biologist Garrett Hardin this is manifested or played out in what he called The Tragedy of the Commons. In his original 1968 paper, Hardin was quite explicit:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

He goes on to assume that ‘each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain’ and makes a rational calculation. If he adds another animal to the commons he will receive all the benefit and, even though his adding more and more animals might contribute to overgrazing, these negative consequences do not just fall on him, they are shared by all. As Hardin concludes, the logic of this is that:

The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. 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. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Garret Hardin – Eugenicist and author of 'The Tragedy of the Commons'

Hardin’s main purpose was not just to examine the history of the English commons, nor the long process of their Enclosure (i.e. privatization). He didn’t do this at all. Instead, following in the footsteps of Thomas Malthus, his programme was to argue that the only answer to the Tragedy was, wherever practical, to move all common lands or rights to use the land, into private ownership – thereby establishing clear ‘property rights’.  But Hardin had another agenda as well. He was a eugenicist and had earlier argued for the forced sterilization of ‘genetically defective’ people. In The Tragedy of the Commons he was quite explicit that we needed to ‘relinquish the freedom to breed:

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. "Freedom is the recognition of necessity"–and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

To be sure, it wasn’t rich property owners who would have to stop breeding. He made it quite clear that the onus was on the poor, whether at home in the United States or in the Third World. What is more, the poor would need to be ‘coerced’ to do so. In 1997, the Wall Street Journal reported:

Mr. Hardin expressed alarm about 'the next generation of breeders' now reproducing uncontrollably in Third World countries. The problem, according to Mr. Hardin, is not simply that there are too many people in the world, but there are too many of the wrong kind of people… It would be better to encourage the breeding of more intelligent people rather than the less intelligent.

In this short essay, I will try to highlight four things: That the so-called Tragedy of the Commons is a myth; that more often than not ecological tragedies have been caused much more frequently by the ruthless pursuit of short-term capitalist profit-maximization than they have by the exercise of communal rights; that the legacy and acceptance of Hardin’s Tragedy has had pernicious consequences; and, finally, that the ‘population question’ isn’t as simple as neo-Malthusians might suggest. Towards the end I will also present a small ‘micro-history’ of events in the Ariège region of the French Pyrenees in the early 19th century. This, I believe, can illustrate some of the some of the general issues surrounding The Tragedy of the Commons.

The ‘Myth’ of the Tragedy of the Commons:

Harden's 1968 article appeared in Science magazine
Harden's 1968 article in Science magazine…notice the question mark!

As his primary historical example Hardin used the supposed overgrazing of the ‘commons’ in England in the period leading up to the 19th century. He based his contentions on the work of the English mathematician and political economist William Foster Lloyd. But, as many scholars have since shown, the English commons never really afforded unrestricted or unfettered access to common land or resources. It was never a ‘free-for-all.’ The English commons consisted in a number of ancient rights that individuals and communities had either enjoyed for centuries or had managed to extract – often against fierce resistance – from feudal Lords. The types of rights, for example to fish, to forage for wild produce, to gaze sheep and cows or to collect wood or cut down trees, and the extent of these rights, was never vague. Sometimes rights were written down but often they were just well-known customary practices – finding their origin in times ‘immemorial’ – but everyone knew who had rights and to what.

It was the American political economist Susan Cox who first described The Tragedy of the Commons as a ‘Myth’. She concluded her excellent study of the English commons’ issue, No Tragedy on the Commons, with the following observation:

Perhaps what existed in fact was not a ‘tragedy of the commons’ but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years – and perhaps thousands … – land was managed successively by communities.

Contrary to what Hardin and others implied, it is quite clear that the English Enclosure Movement was not some sort of beneficial event that saved the commons from being completely despoiled and denuded. In reality, it was a forced privatization, taking place over several centuries and often in the face of fierce opposition. It was quite simply an exercise through which powerful elites tried, and succeeded, in grabbing more power for themselves.

Ultimately, whether or not the history of the English commons and the Enclosure Movement, as it was presented by Garret Hardin, was true or false, might seem only to be of interest to historians of the period. But this is not the case. He implied that such tragedies of the commons were absolutely inevitable, and that they had happened throughout history. In 2009, the American political economist Elinor Ostrom (jointly) won the Nobel Prize for Economics for her decades’ long work, which had showed that this had not been so –at least not most of the time. She and her collaborators have presented dozens, if not hundreds, of historical and contemporary examples highlighting where communities have been able to manage communal resources sustainably, without any environmental tragedy. Ostrom writes that Hardin’s ‘conclusion of an inevitable tragedy was too sweeping’.

Ostrom acknowledges that what she refers to as ‘open-access common-pool resources’ have sometimes been ‘overharvested’. But only in the cases where the commons concerned were a ‘free-for-all’ – which has only been the case in a certain number of situations. Even the Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz, himself a Nobel Prize  winner, commented that Conservatives ‘have used the Tragedy of the Commons to argue for property rights, and that efficiency was achieved as people were thrown off the commons’. He adds that what Ostrom has demonstrated is the ‘existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of the commons without having to resort to property rights’. So while a ‘free-for-all’ can lead to environmental tragedies, communal ownership, management and use mostly has not. The Tragedy of the Commons is a Myth.

Who really causes the Tragedies?

Nobody, I daresay, would deny that the world has witnessed and is still witnessing innumerable examples of environmental tragedies or even catastrophes. ‘If you’re looking for a tragedy’, writes Raj Patel, ‘you can find it everywhere, from the scrambling coltan-mining communities in the Congo to the increasingly desperate actions of farmers applying inorganic fertilizer to the soil to replace the fertility that their mono­culture has destroyed.’

Modern capitalist logging is what causes most deforestation

I use the word tragedy here in is usual everyday sense, rather than with the classical Greek meaning implied by Hardin – i.e. some sort of logical and inevitable playing out of forces beyond the understanding of the protagonists. As has already been stated, it is certainly true that sometimes these tragedies have had their roots in instances of overpopulation and even in instances of an unfettered free-for-all to derive profit from ‘open-access’ resources –whether they be forests, rivers or seas. Yet in the bulk of cases it has not been groups of rural communities with common rights in the land or forests that have caused these tragedies. What is striking is that the bulk of contemporary commentary on ecological degradation is that it completely removes itself from the question of ‘who’ exactly caused it. Even from the question of what, in concrete terms, were the underlying causes. It does this by employing such abstract and vague terms as ‘humans’. Sometimes it even reifies this term to ‘Humankind’. We are told ‘human’ population growth is causing environmental damage and resource depletion; ‘humans’ are cutting down the rain forests; and ‘humans’ are causing global warming.

In one way this is the logical result of the dominant neo-classical economic model. For the sake of mathematical simplicity, this model abstracts from all aspects of geography (space), all aspects of history (time) and even from all aspects of group interaction and dynamics. It does this by constructing a fictive super-rational single ‘representative agent’ who makes decisions based solely on prices given by an equally fictive market. In such a world there really is no place for individuals, groups, classes or even enterprises. The singular fictive representative agent subtly morphs into the plural ‘humans’. As an economist, I would like to stress that this ‘neo-classical’ economic model is not the only one available. For centuries many wonderful economists have examined and analyzed space, time and all manner of group interactions. Yet it unfortunately remains true that nowadays these rich parallel economic traditions remain marginalized.

To return to our theme; throughout history it can be shown, again and again, that it was not the overexploitation of the commons by local rural communities that led to environmental tragedies. Rather, in pre-capitalist times, it was overexploitation by the power elites and, in capitalist times, overexploitation by capitalist companies, that generally caused such environmental catastrophes. In the second half of this essay I will present one such example, the deforestation of a part of the French Pyrenees in the early 19th century.

As Raj Patel has commented, I think justly:

The environmental tragedies from the Dust Bowl to the mass extinctions of rainforest and ocean are the result of the behavior of corporations, of capitalist agriculture and forestry and fishing. The Dust Bowl happened because while individuals knew full well the value of the topsoil, their induction into capitalist agriculture turned them into exploiters of the very land on which their survival depended, transforming their connection to the world around them into one solely of short-term profit.

Why the Myth is Pernicious

Garrett Hardin clearly wasn’t the first person to highlight the supposed negative consequences of communal rights and practices. Aristotle even talked about it in the fourth century. In more recent times, and perhaps more pertinently, we can clearly see the company Hardin was keeping in the work of Ludwig von Mises – the conservative ‘Austrian School’ economist. Together with his somewhat more famous compatriot Friedrich von Hayek, von Mises did much to provide the philosophical underpinnings of modern American and Western Neo-Conservatism. In his 1947 work Human Action, von Mises wrote:

If land is not owned by anybody, although legal formalism may call it public property, it is utilized without any regard to the disadvantages resulting. Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns—lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil—do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation. For them the erosion of the soil, the depletion of the exhaustible resources and other impairments of the future utilization are external costs not entering into their calculation of input and output. They cut down the trees without any regard for fresh shoots or reforestation. In hunting and fishing they do not shrink from methods preventing the repopulation of the hunting and fishing grounds.

Regardless of its antecedents, it was Hardin’s own essay, and his coining of the term The Tragedy on the Commons, that has since become so supremely influential in both academic debate and, more importantly, in economic policy decision-making. This influence has been both insidious and pernicious. I have already alluded to the fact that Hardin’s Tragedy tends to ‘blame the victims’. I think this was best put in an insightful article written a few years ago by the Canadian Ian Angus:

 The fact that Hardin’s argument also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a bonus. Hardin’s essay has been widely used as an ideological response to anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and discontent among indigenous and other oppressed peoples everywhere in the world.

Big corporates are now extending property rights to our genetic inheritance

For decades, international agencies, such as the IMF and World Bank, have based their policy prescriptions for the Third World, and elsewhere, on the implicit or explicit acceptance of the reality of the Tragedy of the Commons. Assuming it to be true, the corollary has been the necessity for countries to privatize all forms of collective ownership or use, and to better define and strengthen property rights. Such an approach has wreaked havoc around the globe.

More recently, we have even witnessed efforts to institute and profit from property rights in our planet’s genetic inheritance. Large agri-businesses sell (sometimes give) non-reproducing seeds to African farmers. No longer can they set aside some seed from each year’s crop to plant next year. They have to go back and buy the seed from the agri-businesses every year. Western companies are also claiming property rights in numerous natural gene sequences; extracted from plants, flowers and trees in the Amazon and elsewhere.

Now many such companies couldn’t care less whether what they are doing can be justified morally or economically – they just want to make more profit. But whenever justifications are offered, they are, as often as not, couched in terms of The Tragedy of the Commons.

The Population Problem

It was Thomas Malthus, in his 1798 publication entitled: An Essay on the Principle of Population, who first popularized the idea that population growth will tend to outrun the available food supply. If unchecked, populations will always grow geometrically (i.e. exponentially), whereas ‘the means of subsistence’ can only increase arithmetically. The world’s population would always tend to expand until famine, war, and disease eventually kept it in balance. He argued that there should be no relief measures for the poor, because they these would encourage excessive population growth and lead to disastrous social and environmental consequences.

Ecological disasters are at least as much caused by inequality as by overpopulation

Two hundred years later, when we consider the sheer numbers involved it is hard not to be both concerned and discouraged. The human population of the Earth today is nearing seven billion, two hundred years ago is was only around one billion, and if we go back to Roman times it is estimated that there were only about 231 million people on the whole planet – roughly one fifth of the population of India today! Nowadays, we are constantly reminded, though sadly to little effect, that we are living beyond the means of the earth, its natural resources and the sustainability of its eco-systems. The best estimate at present is that we would need two planets to sustainably support our present level of population, consuming at current levels. Though many many more if everyone consumed like the rich countries.

When looking back into history, many writers and commentators have presented past ecological and societal collapses as being predominantly caused by overpopulation. Jared Diamond is one of these. I will leave to one side some of the rather debatable analysis that Diamond presents for a number of his ‘collapses’; plus the fact that he seems to accept the ‘truth’ of the concept of The Tragedy of the Commons hook, line, and sinker. In his book, Collapse – How societies choose to fail or survive, he writes:

Population growth forced people to adopt intensified means of agricultural production… and to expand farming from the prime lands first chosen onto more marginal land, in order to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. Unsustainable practices led to environmental damage…

Of importance here is not so much the validity or otherwise of the historical analysis, rather it is the fact that Diamond sees all environmental collapses, in the past and still today, as being brought on by overpopulation. Garrett Hardin was also of this Malthusian overpopulation school. That is why he wrote his seminal essay. He tells us: ‘Man's population problem is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.’ So while it might be the case that his whole rhetoric against the ‘commons’ was something of a red-herring, the growth in population was the absolutely central. As we have seen, his answer was firstly to privatize everything that could conceivably be passed into private or corporate hands; when that wasn’t possible then either draconian regulation was required:

The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it. But the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated.

The ultimate aim of Hardin’s plea was expounded in a long section of his essay called: Freedom to Breed Is Intolerable. One of his objectives was to eliminate any form of welfare support:

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, over breeding brought its own "punishment" to the germ line–then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

He suggested that ‘poor’ people needed to be coerced into stopping breeding. Being a fair man he recognized that coercion can sometimes be unjust:

We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust—but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

Yet again, the question here is justice and injustice for whom? It’s not in fact the millions of people living in the ‘third world’ who are causing the environmental disasters we are continuing to witness today. It is rather the massive level of consumption of people in the Western world and in certain industrialized parts of Asia. The average American consumes dozens of times more resources than the average African.  Just in the area of energy consumption, it has been calculated that each year a person in the United States has used as much energy by 2 am on the 2nd of January as a person in Tanzania uses in the whole year! The problem here isn’t just overpopulation but gross global inequalities as well.

A short micro-historyLa Guerre des Demoiselles

Many European mountain communities held on to their common rights to use the forest well into the 19th century. Elinor Ostrom is fond of highlighting the example of how this was the case in the Swiss Alps – where viable and long-standing communal use and ownership patterns in the highlands co-existed with private ownership in the valleys. Such was also the case in the French Pyrenees in the early decades of the 19th century.

This was still a highly forested and remote world. Local historian Georges Labouysse describes it thus: ‘The conditions of life of these mountain dwellers were hard. They live in autarky in remote valleys where the means of communication were difficult…. They didn’t know what was happening in the outside world. Most of the time they weren’t even aware of the successive changes of regime since the Revolution: from 1815 to 1830 as follows: Napoleon 1st, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe: four sovereigns in fifteen years!’ He goes on to tell us:

From times immemorial, the poor country people of the Pyrenees had freely used the forest to survive: tree trunks to construct their houses, dead wood to warm themselves, grazing for small herds, poaching and wild foraging and clearing and burning to create  a few pastures.

A charcoal burner's hut in the forest

These community rights of usage (usufruct) were coupled with quite widespread communal ownership of land and, particularly, of forests. In fact, French historians have shown that, in contrast to the situation in the rest of France, in the Pyrenees forests were, in the majority of cases, owned in common by the local communities who lived in them. Some such communal rights and ownership patterns went back to Roman and Visigoth times, but others had had to be extracted in the early Middle Ages from the local Lords – either voluntarily or often after long fights. What is more, these rights of use did not constitute a free-for-all. Just as with the English ‘commons’, these mountain communities knew precisely who had a right to what and the extent of these rights in terms of how much could be used or taken. Mostly these rights were not written down, which was to cause problems later on, but they were explicit and informal mechanisms had evolved to ensure that the rights were not abused.

In terms of the Tragedy of the Commons, the first important point here is that there wasn’t one. The local communities had used the forests for centuries, and although they had carved out a few small plots to cultivate agricultural products, or on which to graze their cattle, there had been negligible impact on the extent of forest cover and on the health of the trees. Such communities led a rather meager life to be sure, but it had certainly been, to use a modern word, ‘sustainable’.

Yet things were changing in the outside world, and not just in terms of monarchs. In the early days of the French Revolution, communities were turned into ‘communes’, but these communes remained the proprietors of the forests. Things soon changed when Napoleon took charge of the country. He called the Ariège, the Pyrenean region with which I will be primarily concerned, ‘the land of iron and of men’. He had need of both – the men for his armies, and the iron mines to supply his forges. He also needed the Pyrenean forests to supply charcoal for these forges. So he nationalized them all – they all became the property of the state. It was at this time, and over the next few decades, that deforestation in the Pyrenees started to pick up.

Iron forges like this sprang up all over the Pyrenees – they consumed huge quantities of charcoal

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the ‘national’ forests were privatized. They were sold, often at knock-down prices, to the ‘rich bourgeoisie’. They became private property. The new proprietors of the forests, who were often also the owners of the large iron forges of the region, didn’t want to have any truck with the local communities’ ancestral forest rights, which they vehemently contested. Their sole interest was their own profit. Many significant fortunes were made by cutting down the trees ‘sans pitié’ to feed a rising French industry and its steam engines. It should be added that French industry was at this time (the 1820s and 1830s) still almost totally dependent on charcoal – only much later did coal come into general use.

The new regime was brought into law in 1827, with the passing of a national Forest Code. All rights of forest usage were suppressed and any ‘paysan’ who continued to exercise such rights would in future be considered, literally, an outlaw and be liable to huge fines or imprisonment. During the debates, one Deputy explicitly stated why the Forest Code was necessary:

Industry whose prosperity is growing every day demands immense resources from our forests, (resources) that mining in the entrails of the earth can’t replace, above all for reasons of combustible quality.

No question here of any Tragedy of the Commons or such like. Industry needed the wood and thus the forests would fall. To enforce their private property rights the new proprietors kicked the local people off the land and recruited ‘forest guards’ to keep them off. For the local communities all this was a disaster. For generations they had relied on the forests to survive; now they were facing destitution. Most local people couldn’t be expected to fully understand the larger political and economic forces that were starting to play out, but they could see what the consequences were for themselves in their own locales. They had been kicked out of their ‘ancestral’ forests, hated forest guards had been employed to keep them out, whole swathes of forest were being felled and more and more charcoal burning forges were appearing everywhere.

They had to resist. Starting 1n 1828 they did so. This was the famous (at least locally) Guerre des Demoiselles. The new forest proprietors, who were usually also the owners of the forges, had contested the communities’ right to use the forests. When the communities had sought redress in the local courts they were asked to show written documentary proof. Of course such ‘charters’ granting these rights had either never existed or had long since been destroyed. But the locals looked for them in any case. On the 4th September 1828 they broke into the Town Hall of Sentein in the Ariège and broke open chests looking for such documentary proof – but in vain. Labouysse describes what happened next, in despair:

They undertook actions which were to mark the collective memory of this country (pays). Thus in February 1829, in the forest of Bethmale, the agents of repression – the famous forest guards paid by the private proprietors or by the State and whom the population called Salamanders (because their uniforms were black and yellow) roughly searched the houses of a few isolated peasants. Suddenly eight men appeared, disguised and armed with various instruments, who chased them away. This is the start of a permanent insurrection.

In 1829 and 1830 the resistance grew and spread over the whole region. Eventually it is estimated that 150,000 people were involved. In general, the resistance was comprised of young men, usually under twenty, joined by numerous veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. The bands became larger, and local leaders emerged. The most famous of these was called ‘Vidalou’ – in reality a certain Jean-Baptiste Lafforgue. Wherever they went, the forest guards, the Salamanders, were confronted by groups of such ‘disguised’ young men, who tried to stop them preventing access to the forests. They were in fact disguised as women or ladies (Demoiselles), hence the name given to the insurrection: La Guerre des Demoiselles. On eyewitness has left us this description of the Demoiselles:

The leader with whom I spoke was very tall, wore a underskirt over his …  grey trousers, had a sheep’s skin on his head which covered his whole face, (and) where he had made three openings to be able to see and breath; he wore a light cavalry sabre. Another, armed with an axe and of normal height, was covered with a dress tightened with a red belt to which was attached a pistol; his face was smeared black, with pig bristles implanted all over his face, and mainly in his eyebrows and top lip; he was ‘coiffured’ with a ‘shako’ (a hussar’s helmet). The rest of the band was more or less dressed in the same manner.

The bizarre disguises were necessary to prevent the Demoiselles from being identified. When individuals were brought before the courts they were often released because there was no solid evidence as to true their identity. Yet the manner in which they were dressed also finds echoes in the history of the local carnivals when, similar to the tradition in much of Europe, for a few days each year the world really was ‘turned upside down’. Lords served the peasants and women lorded it over men.

The Demoiselles had the support of nearly all the local population, including most of the village Mayors. The prefect of the Ariège wrote to the French Minister of the Interior in 1830 that it wouldn’t be of any use to try to plant spies or informers in the communities because:

The interests of the country people of the Ariège, in matters that concern the forests, are so linked that one can’t hope to find secret agents for the authorities, other than by buying them at a very high price.

The people of the Ariege still celebrate the victory of the Demoiselles

But the central government needed to act to protect the rights of private property. They had been told that ‘the inhabitants of the Ariège were ‘as savage and brutal as the bears they raise’. They sent in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmerie. But to little effect, despite instituting the notion of ‘collective responsibility’ even for individual ‘subversive’ acts. Not only did the Demoiselles have the support of the local populace – even the local freemasons, clergy, postmen and customs men were on their side – but they were also employing classic hit and run guerilla tactics, which the French troops found difficult to counter. As military repression didn’t seem to be working, the government decided to negotiate. Finally, on the 23rd February 1831, the French Interior Ministry issued an ordinance revoking all the statutes of the 1827 forest code. A general amnesty was proclaimed; all convicted offenders were released and all trials stopped. Ancestral rights to the use of the forest were restored. The people of the Ariège had won a significant, historic, but ultimately Pyrrhic, victory!

By the 1830s, many regions of the Pyrenean uplands were indeed experiencing significant deforestation. Michael Williams quotes several contemporary reports that described the scene ‘with phrases and words like “landscapes of desolation,” “blasted,” “terrible aspect,” and “terrible nudity of bare and sterile rock.”’ But, as we have seen, this deforestation, at least in the Pyrenees, was not the result of local communities having had common use of the forests, it was quite clearly the result, first of Napoleon’s need to wood to supply his armies and, later, of the privatized forests being exploited by private owners to supply wood and charcoal for the French industrial revolution.

The Ariege forests were saved as much by the shift to coal as by reforestation programmes

The Demoiselles were to return sporadically over the course of the next forty years. But in the long-term they weren’t able to stop the private felling and exploitation of the Pyrenean forests. This went on. The local people found it more and more difficult to survive, as their forests were cut down and their access and use was increasingly hampered. Like millions of Europeans in the 19th century, they emigrated in their droves to the growing towns and cities of France. There to become new members of the burgeoning urban proletariat. As regards the forests of the Pyrenees, what is left of them today can’t be put down to later French reforestation efforts, of which there were many, but rather they owe their existence to the fact that eventually French industry shifted to the use of coal, and later imported oil, and away from charcoal, as its primary source of energy. In this sense fossil fuels did save some of Europe’s forests.

What I hope is clear from this modest micro-history is that the deforestation that took place in the French Pyrenees was not caused at all by a Tragedy of the Commons. It was the result of political and economic developments in France as a whole and, at the local level, the deforestation was carried out by the new private owners of the forests, not by the local communities who had lost their rights to use the ‘commons’.

Sources and references

Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth, Chicago, 2006; Garret Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, 1968; Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990, Susan Jane Buck Cox, No Tragedy on the Commons, Environmental Ethics, 1985 ; Ian Angus, The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons, Socialist Voice, 2008; Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798; Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, 1949; Georges Labouysse,  D’étranges demoiselles,  Occitania, 2006 ; François Baby, La guerre des Demoiselles en Ariège (1829-1872), Montbel, 1972;  Jean-François Soulet, Les Pyrénées au XIXe siècle. L'éveil d'une société civile, éditions Sud-Ouest, Luçon, 2004;René Dupont, La guerre des Demoiselles dans les forêts de l'Ariège (1829-1831), Travaux du laboratoire forestier de Toulouse; Toulouse ; Prosper Barousse, Les Demoiselles, La Mosaïque du Midi, 1839 ; Michel Dubedat, Le procès des Demoiselles. Résistance à l'application du Code forestier dans les montagnes de l'Ariège (1828-1830), Bulletin de la société ariégeoise des sciences lettres et arts, 1899-1900.

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