Green Economy Sparks a Modern Tragedy of the Commons

Displacement in Bajo Aguan, Honduras, illustrates how green economy initiatives like carbon cap and trade can create a modern Tragedy of the Commons.

A young girl stands amidst Afican palm trees with soldiers in the background in Bajo Aguan.

This is the modern Tragedy of the Commons: an international system that rewards social inequality in the name of saving the planet.

Photo By Nora Bluhme

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Carmen* watches as steam rises from the coffee mug between her hands and dissolves into the cool morning air. She leans against the clay walls of her family hut and sighs, tired from a dawn spent pounding dough into breakfast tortillas. Her husband and their six-year-old son left for work on the African palm tree plantation about an hour ago. In a few more hours, the boy will return to Guadalupe Carney, their rural Honduran community, to collect lunch for himself and his father. Carmen is eager to bask in the morning quiet while it lasts.  

Suddenly, her son skips back through the door, chewing a blade of grass. “Weren’t you going to help Daddy today?” she asks, her eyebrows knitting with concern.  

“Nope,” the boy shrugs. “He sent me home.”  

Her cell phone rings. Carmen begins to feel faint as she registers her husband’s words: “Things are getting ugly here. I don’t want any of you on the plantation today. I’ll see you tonight.”  

It is November 15th, 2010. Shortly after she hangs up the phone, Carmen’s husband and at least three other farm workers are shot to death.  

The “Tragedy of the commons” scenario is commonly used to explain why fighting climate change is difficult. It describes “a group of livestock farmers who share grazing land [and] allow their animals to overgraze on the communal turf, despite knowing that they are ultimately destroying everyone’s resource, including their own.” A farmer could choose to limit his livestock’s grazing time in order to protect the communal resource, but that would mean less food for his animals. The challenge for curbing climate change has been to find a way to incentivize the choice to protect the commons. And quite a challenge it has been: as environmentalist Bill McKibben put it in a recent article, “Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself.”  

One proposed solution is known as the green economy, which purportedly protects the environment while creating wealth. It accomplishes this through programs like the carbon credit market, and the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program (REDD+). Through these programs, international organizations like the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have begun paying for the protection of ecosystems that do valuable things for the environment. When a tree absorbs greenhouse gases, for instance, it is considered to be performing an “ecosystems service.” From the green economy perspective, this service should be paid for, just like any other. “We see the green economy as the only type of economy that can deliver sustainable development and really solve the problem of persistent poverty … the only kind of economy that can manage to do all this while reducing ecological scarcities and reducing environmental risks,” argues Pavan Sukhdev, former special advisor to the UN Green Economy Initiative. “It means it’s the only economy for the future,” he explains.  

To read more on the Modern Tragedy of the Commons visit Guernica.

*Carmen is a fictitious name given to a Guadalupe Carney resident who chose to remain anonymous. The details of her husband’s murder are accurate.  

Danielle Marie Mackey is a freelance journalist and interpreter based in San Salvador. She writes about conflict, social movements, and structural injustice. She is originally from Iowa. Reprinted from Guernica, an award-winning online magazine of ideas, art, poetry, and fiction published twice monthly.