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Handbook of Global Environmental Politics

Edited by Peter Dauvergne

The first Handbook of original articles by leading scholars of global environmental politics, this landmark volume maps the latest theoretical and empirical research in this young and growing field. Captured here are the dynamic and energetic debates over concerns for the health of the planet and how they might best be addressed.
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Chapter 3: Garrett Hardin and Tragedies of Global Commons

Marvin S. Soroos


Marvin S. Soroos Arguably no other work in the field of environmental policy has been as widely read and influential, and perhaps as controversial, as biologist Garrett Hardin’s (1968) article ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. The article appeared as a first wave of environmental concern was building in the late 1960s that culminated in the first Earth Day in 1970 and the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. It was the era of the Torrey Canyon oil spill in the English Channel and Paul Erhlich’s (1968) book The Population Bomb that drew attention to the rapid global population growth rates of the 1960s. A few years later, the Club of Rome released its alarming report entitled The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972). Over the years, many have criticized Hardin by questioning the inevitability of the environmental ‘tragedies’ he warns about or the ethics of his proposals for averting them. His later article, ‘Living on a Lifeboat’ was especially controversial for arguing against providing emergency food assistance programmes for nations suffering from famine in order to encourage demographic responsibility (Hardin, 1974; for a critique see Soroos, 1977). Nevertheless, as politically incorrect as some of Hardin’s proposals have been, I have found myself repeatedly drawn back to his basic model, and the parables he offers to present it, as I have sought to explore the dynamics of international and global environmental problems and analyse the strategies that might be adopted to address them. Not...

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