How to Make Earth Green Again

The psychology of saving the green commons from capitalist predation.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

What good is a forest? Not much, according to economists at the World Bank, unless it is cut down and made into lumber. Of course, even the most aggressive profit chasers have long since learned that deforestation, strip-mining, fracking, and other environment-killing practices can be made to appear less threatening when given a proper spin. Words have always been cheap, but never in the past has the use of empty rhetoric been as fraught with deadly consequences as corporate greed has made the language of "eco-friendliness" and "sustainability."

As recent, detailed economic analyses demonstrate, the root of the problem is the fundamental incompatibility between capitalism and sustainability. On the one hand, growth is the central and non-negotiable tenet of capitalism (Smith, 2010); on the other hand, any unlimited—let alone exponential—growth is inherently impossible to sustain in any closed and finite setting, such as a planetary ecosystem (Hickel & Kallis, 2020).

The clash between the reigning economic paradigm, which is capitalism, and the health of the ecosystem, on which our lives depend, is made particularly acute by the involvement of the commons—the kind of resource that belongs to everybody, such as forests that exist on public land, fish that swim in international waters, or the air we breathe. According to one view, popularized by Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article in Science, economic agents acting in self-interest will always try to get hold of more than their share of any such resource, inevitably leading to its accelerated depletion—the "tragedy of the commons."

This dynamic is especially pernicious when self-interest is combined with the growth imperative, as they are under capitalism. The runaway global warming and the other aspects of climate change are a direct outcome of such dynamics: It costs nothing to dump greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so everyone and their favorite fossil fuel company keep doing just that, in support of a cushy lifestyle that is not even shared fairly among all the "stakeholders" (itself a favorite "Newspeak" term of the pretend reformers of capitalism; see Freeman et al., 2016).

It would seem that imposing a cost on the use of commons (for instance, a tax on carbon dioxide emissions) might alleviate the problem. Whether or not such a purely economic remedy can ultimately do the job (an open question much discussed by economists), it has been known for a while that economic incentives can actually negate the beneficial effects of the single most important factor in this equation: the inherent human motivation to cooperate for the common good.

Studies based on massive amounts of anthropological data show unequivocally that people of all cultures are predisposed to cooperation (e.g., Curry, 2019). Paradoxically, however, both "market-based" interventions and centralized economic control measures weaken rather than augment the effects of people's public-mindedness.

Thus, Elinor Ostrom's (2010) analysis of the "tragedy of the commons" showed that while "[p]essimism about the possibility of users voluntarily cooperating to prevent overuse has led to widespread central control of common-pool resources," "such control has itself frequently resulted in resource overuse. In practice, especially where they can communicate, users often develop rules that limit resource use and conserve resources."

One of the psychological mechanisms behind the negative outcomes of the attempts to economically motivate people to cooperate has been termed motivation crowding (Frey & Jegen, 2001), as in monetary incentives "crowding out" the individuals' conscience-driven considerations. There is strong support for this explanation in the setting of forestry management. As Cardenas, Stranlund, & Willis (2000) write:

Regulations that are designed to improve social welfare typically begin with the premise that individuals are purely self-interested. Experimental evidence shows, however, that individuals do not typically behave this way; instead, they tend to strike a balance between self and group interests. From experiments performed in rural Colombia, we found that a regulatory solution for an environmental dilemma that standard theory predicts would improve social welfare clearly did not. This occurred because individuals confronted with the regulation began to exhibit less other-regarding behavior and made choices that were more self-interested; that is, the regulation appeared to crowd out other-regarding behavior.

More recently, Rustagi, Engel, & Kosfeld (2010) have combined experimental measures of conditional cooperation with surveys of costly monitoring among 49 forest user groups in Ethiopia and with measures of natural forest commons outcomes. They were able to show that "(i) groups vary in conditional cooperator share, (ii) groups with larger conditional cooperator share are more successful in forest commons management, and (iii) costly monitoring is a key instrument with which conditional cooperators enforce cooperation." They note that these findings "are consistent with models of gene-culture coevolution of human cooperation and provide external validity to laboratory experiments on social dilemmas."

The implications of these findings for the fight to save the Earth from the ecological catastrophe that we have unleashed are clear. The critically important factor would appear to be proper civics and science education (which, it must be noted, will not work unless the wholesale rejection of science and the political propaganda on the part of the planet-killers are dealt with). One might counter that the largest polluters are not individuals but corporations, and those cannot be educated. But corporations only survive if their activities and products are countenanced by the consumers, so it all is, metaphorically speaking, in our hands.

Better yet, we might consider placing the commons truly in the people's possession. They already are in "anarchist" polities such as Rojava, or, to cite a "statist" example, in countries that have nationalized their key natural resources, such as Bolivia under the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), a political movement that has vastly improved the quality of life of Bolivia's people since it first came to power in 2006. To make the Earth green again, its rightful owners must unite and do what it takes—all together, now.


Cardenas, J.C., Stranlund, J., and Willis, C. (2000). Local environmental control and institutional crowding-out. World Development, 28(10), 1719-1733.

Curry, O., Chesters, M.J., and Van Lissa, C. J. (2019). Mapping morality with a compass: Testing the theory of 'morality-as-cooperation' with a new questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 78, 106-124.

Freeman, R. E., Parmar, B. L., and Martin, K. E. (2016). Responsible capitalism: Business for the 21st century. In D. Barton, D. Horváth, and M. Kipping, editors, Re-Imagining Capitalism, chapter 10, pages 135–144. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Frey, B.S., and Jegen, R. (2001). Motivation Crowding Theory. Journal of Economic Surveys, 15(5), 589-610.

Hickel, J. and Kallis, G. (2020). Is green growth possible? New Political Economy, 25(4), 469–486.

Ostrom, E. (2008). Tragedy of the Commons. In S. N. Durlauf and L. E. Blume, eds., The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 6716-6719. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Rustagi, D., Engel., S., and Kosfeld, M. (2010. Conditional cooperation and costly monitoring explain success in forest commons management. Science, 330, 961-965.

Smith, R. (2010). Beyond growth or beyond capitalism? Real-world Economics Review, 53, 28–42.