The Amazon River & the Tragedy of “The Tragedy of The Commons”

giant cedars3-LHP

Giant cedars in British Columbia (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Environmentality: a militarized mentality… a pattern of thought that seeks to justify increases in national and civilian security by increasing insecurity; environmentalism turned into a policing action—Robert P. Marzec

According to Robert Marzec, of the University of Minnesota, science has sought since the 1700s to emancipate human beings from their dependence on chance; the science and philosophy of men ultimately “brought about a form of securitization that changed the understanding of Nature from an entity on which one depended into an entity that posed a threat.”

The “natural world” became a primal chaos of danger and uncertainty from which civilized humanity must free itself. According to the philosophical and scientific men of the Enlightenment—Locke, Smith, Hobbes, Bacon, Descartes, and others—the environment had to be subdued—securitized—for humans to obtain their independence…humans had to emancipate themselves from their (unenclosed) environments. Environment (like womankind) became “the other”, whose vagaries needed to be subdued and cultivated.

enclosures britain

Enclosures in Britain

Fast forward to December 1968 when Garrett Hardin published his paper in Science entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Neoliberal capitalists, right wing theorists, and new-colonial development agencies, embraced the term to justify their privatization model based on productivity and growth. This iconic paper “framed the debate about common property for the last 30 years, and has exerted a baleful influence upon international development and environmental policy, even after Hardin himself admitted that he had got it wrong, and rephrased his entire theory,” writes the Land Magazine. 

The Commons & The Myth of Tragedy

AlanBates in FarFromTheMaddingCrowd

Alan Bates in “Far from the Madding Crowd”

Hardin initially argued that “the commons were a less-advanced form of social existence, one that existed without rules or regulations,” writes Robert Marzec in his book Militarizing the Environment. Hardin supposed that “humans were fundamentally self-interested and at war with one another, [and] this unregulated social space of existence would result in over exploitation and ultimate destruction of natural resources.”

Hardin vigorously applied this singular perspective to all kinds of “property” from fish populations to national parks and polluted steams to parking lots and he prescribed a singular solution: assigning private property or enclosure.

anton_mauve_in_the_pasture“The shortcoming of the tragic myth of the commons,” writes The Land Magazine, “is its strangely unidimensional picture of human nature. The farmers in Hardin’s pasture do not seem to talk to one another. As individuals, they are alienated, rational, utilitarian-maximizing automatons and little else, the sum total of their social life is the grim Hobbesian struggle of each against all, and all together against the pasture in which they are trapped.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it is the opposite.

Hardin’s single-minded argument erroneously imposed the behaviour of a post-commons humanity—entrepreneurs trained in a capitalist enclosure model—on inhabitants who operated by other social paradigms in the commons. What Hardin overlooked, said E.P. Thompson, “is that commoners were not without common sense.” Hardin later retracted his use of this terminology.

Inhabitancy vs. Entrepreneurship

sheep and shepherd-britain

Shepherd and his sheep and dogs in Britain

The commons had developed a highly regulated social system of checks and balances against monopolization. Villages used functional mechanisms of seasonal distribution and redistribution, such as the “mead stick” system, to ensure that no single person would gain monopoly of the land. Each mead stick associated with a particular farmer was placed into a sac and drawn to determine which “mead-ow” a farmer got. Only the land considered suitable for crops was cultivated; the remainder was open for all to use for cattle.  Individuals who had access to the land were not entrepreneurs, bent on accumulating capital; they were inhabitants of the land and used it for sustenance rather than investment. The focus was on subsistence, not growth and production. The enclosure mentality, and its partner environmentality, arose like a warring specter over the human virtues of cooperation, compassion, fairness, and kindness.

When did we change? When—and why—did we get greedy for power?

The Tragedy of The Enclosures

Marzek environmentAccording to Marzec, enclosures began “before the development of capitalism during the transformation from the Saxon system of tenure to the more militarized manorial system.” Enclosures really took hold in the feudal times, as tenure faded in favour of “manorial lords who desired the legal right to enclose for the purpose of increasing their wealth and, by extension, the ability to direct resources toward their defensive capacity.”

Marzec defines the enclosure movement by three actions: the eradication of inhabitancy, development of common law and a mandate to “improve land”.

History demonstrates that it is “enclosures—the dominant paradigm of modernity—that contribute to the exploitation of resources and the over-population of the planet,” writes Marzec. “The very idea of a cash crop—an environmental ‘improvement’ that compromises biodiversity in favour of anthropological gain— depends on the logic of enclosure.” Within the enclosure paradigm the entrepreneur is the essential human half of a machine that transforms a valueless chaotic ecosystem into a “surplus” of power and production.

When did we lose our connection to Nature? When did it become just resource to be cultivated and improved?

European Enlightenment thinkers and political theorists of the 1600s and 1700s created the architecture of neoliberalism. Writing during the time of enclosing transformations, they all developed notions of human nature as warring, selfish and only interested in personal gain that organized its struggle and freedom around the cultivation/subjugation of the earth.


Versailles, France

By the late 1700s, landscape began to be perceived through its utility. Even beauty was perceived according to whether a landscape was cultivated and ordered or wild and chaotic. Louis the Fourteenth’s Versailles gardens was totally based on the premise of order and the suppression of Nature’s chaos to the will of ‘man’. “Enclosed spaces were characterized as remarkable, beautiful, and pleasant, full of grace and gaiety. Open areas were labelled as promiscuous, and inhabitants of open areas as wild, and in as rough a state as the country they dwell in. Ecosystems came to be identified as useful or bare,” writes Marzec.

I recently ran across this viewpoint in a 2016 article by Huffington Post in which Canada was described as mostly “empty”—as in empty of enclosed communities of people. The fact that these areas are rich with boreal forest, all kinds of life and many commons communities of indigenous people was totally disregarded by using the term “empty”.

The Age of Enclosure

Amazon River-jungle

The Amazon River

According to Marzec, the true age of enclosure is the twenty-first century. He describes as example the long history of destructive development and environmental degradation in northern Brazil, where over four hundred years of colonial rule and development have naturally evolved into the neocolonial age of environmentality. Northern Brazil is the location of Camacari (owned by Brasken), the Western hemisphere’s largest petrochemical complex, with fifty thousand employees who work with chemicals, “such as benzene and alcohols, that affect the Amazon’s central and peripheral nervous system. Workers operate with little awareness of these chemicals’ toxicity,” writes Marzec. Camacari provides chemicals to Dow and Innova and in 2010 they acquired Sunoco.

Enclosing the Amazon

The Amazon River carries more than a fifth of all the freshwater that flows into the sea of the entire planet. This is five times more than it’s nearest competitor, the Congo, and twenty times more than the Mississippi River. Outside of the glaciated polar regions, half to two-thirds of the fresh water on the Earth is present in the Amazon, Marzec tells us. “This vast amount of water is increasingly polluted with arsenic, mercury and other highly toxic substances from mining and smelting,” writes Marzec. Only forty years ago, Amazon water was drinkable; now, with mining, industry and sewage from its millions of inhabitants, Amazon waters must be purified through some means.

Amazon floodplain

Amazon River floodplain

Sadly, those in power have embraced Hardin’s tragic commons theory to steer towards enclosure as a means to save the forests (and the water). Researchers have estimated that within five years, an area the size of Virginia will have been handed over to private corporations and entrepreneurs to manage at their discretion. Along with those developers, the United States increasingly strengthens its military presence in Brazil, ensuring access by its corporations to Brazil’s energy reserves and putting pressure on ecosystems and associated indigenous populations that inhabit those territories. Invariably, writes Marzec, “indigenous territories are subsumed into programs of energy exploitation.”

We know where this will lead. And that is the real tragedy.



Vineyard in Niagara on the Lake, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)





nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books.

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