From the October 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
What we are looking at with respect to tackling climate change is reminiscent of what the biologist Garret Hardin wrote about in his famous essay in the 1960s on the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. Hardin’s basic thesis was seriously flawed. In practice, actually existing commons do not generally result in serious environmental degradation since they are often quite closely monitored and subject to stringent rules to prevent overuse and destructive exploitation.
More to the point, Hardin’s diagnosis of the problem was misplaced. It was not the fact that there was a commons to which the herders could gain free access that was the root cause of the problem of overgrazing. Rather it was the fact that the cattle herds were privately owned by herders in competition with each other that locked them into the destructive logic whereby each herder benefited exclusively from the addition of one more head of cattle to his/her herd but where the environmental costs of each additional head of cattle were externalised and shared by all the commoners.
The same kind of logic applies in the case of how capitalism is dealing with climate change. The trillions of dollars needed to tackle climate may well be less than the costs of inaction but as long as each capitalist state is seeking to externalise the costs of tackling climate change – get others to bear more of the burden of these costs so as not to impair its own economic prospects in its competition with others – inaction will result. States will only be dragged kicking and screaming into action as things get generally worse and the action they take will probably be too little too late.
That is the tendency of capitalism – to get away with what is minimally required.