Extinction Politics

ECOLOGIES | Books  }

James Trafford / October 16, 2021
The idea of a global commons and of "natural limits" emerged in the 1970s, and forms a Neo-Malthusian structure of thinking that underpins certain environmentalist movements and practices. 3661 words / 15 min read

Photo:Inselberg Landscape, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique by Tom Rulkens

We are very happy to be publishing this edited extract from James Trafford’s The Empire at Home: Internal Colonies and the End of Britain, published by Pluto Press.

Managing a global commons

In the wake of a decolonized and destabilized world order, the emergence of the idea of a global commons was consolidated in the 1970s in the context of attempts made by dominant states to create the possibility for global governance. The concept of the global commons had emerged from concerns to put in place shared standards for global trade and international relations that would work through post-Bretton Woods institutions and the Washington consensus. Whilst advocates of globalisation theory have emphasised how this made way for globalised free markets beyond the limitations of nation-states, this new form of governance is better understood as locking-in regulatory sovereignty and anti-democratic movements and promoting global capital mobility.1 New forms of knowledge had emerged that cohered with the idea of a global commons, emphasizing local interaction and ecological interconnectedness whilst abjuring top-down interventionism.2 Drawing on cybernetics and ideas of self-organisation, the image of the world produced was one of information flows simultaneously breaking down boundaries across a global ecosystem, whilst also naturalizing their reproduction as the emergent manifestation of underlying processes.

Since the middle of the 20th century, architects of neoliberalism like Friedrich Hayek had developed a similar analysis of spontaneous organization – of crystals, markets, nature, and society. Global order would emerge from the seeming chaos of local actions. Moving away from neoclassical models of economic equilibrium that focused on exchange and allocation, in Hayek’s view the market is a coordinator of information between agents. Economic significance is tied to the value that individuals place on goods through the expression of their consumption needs. These are manifested through individual preferences and aggregated through a system where the market acts as a complex calculation device, where prices ‘tell the individual how to best contribute to the pool from which we all draw in proportion to our contribution’.3 The price system is therefore both the emergent result of economic practices and their pre-condition. According to the theory, when dealing with scarce resources, huge numbers of people will, without explicit knowledge of that scarcity, move to ‘to use the material or its products more sparingly; i.e., they move in the right direction’.4

This model didn’t assume equilibrium like neoclassical economics, but foregrounded the dynamics between nature and human through local interactions and feedback loops. As Philip Mirowski puts it, classical liberal economists like Adam Smith ‘imagined a night watchman state that would set the boundaries for the natural growth of the market, like a shepherd tending his flock’.5 Core principles of good governance and liberty would then be set in place by the natural rights of citizens acting as they should in a liberal society. As such, markets require protection from state intervention as far as possible, whilst society would be protected from any potential disruptions of the market by natural rights and the principle of individual liberty. This “natural order” comprised of freedom for the parochial European as human, won through spatial and temporal differentiations, racialized segregation, and violent extraction from the non-European other. This relied on a civilized form of the “laws of nature”, wielded against the unnatural order of those produced as other to it.

This “natural order” comprised of freedom for the parochial European as human, won through spatial and temporal differentiations, racialized segregation, and violent extraction from the non-European other.

Working in this lineage, the preservation of regimes of private property and their inheritance was central a neoliberal approach to the global commons. If classical liberalism understood laissez-faire markets as natural and benevolent entities, then neoliberalism as Foucault observed ‘on the contrary, should be regarded as a call to vigilance, to activism, to perpetual interventions’.6 Against the naturalization of liberalism’s genocidal freedoms, neoliberal markets were understood to be constructed, rather than natural, so requiring vigilance and work to build and maintain: ‘[i]n no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing’.7 The very idea of a free market is based on a false dichotomy between a state acting or not. Neoliberal markets have not required state roll-back so much as state-repurposing.

The major economic function of government lies in the organisation of markets to protect and promote competition by rules developed through spontaneous organisation. These rules must be implicit in individual’s behaviour and abilities, rather than transparently accessible to the rational subject or made explicit in public fora. Herein lies Hayek’s appeal to societal norms and the ‘calming authority of tradition’, together with the injunction that we ‘[t]rust the standards inherited from the past’.8 The idea is that social competition has determined the most advantageous norms for our society, selecting abstract social rules through our individual practices and interactions. These pre-existing norms and practices have supposedly been articulated and systematized into laws.9 Even explicit laws and policies are both dependent upon a system of tacit rules, and productive of knowledge that is tacitly possessed. So it is paramount that such knowledge is not disrupted or distorted in such a way as to prevent the smooth functioning of the free market.

Generalized in Hayek’s later work, this made way for a systems ecology that fosters the resilience ‘of individuals and social, ecological and financial systems against unknowable, unpredictable and unmanageable catastrophe’.10 Whilst nature would no longer provided an alibi for imperialist capitalism, this shift between liberalism and neoliberalism was motivated by the conditions under which the spatial and temporal freedoms of “Western man” could be executed. In the period after WWII, the anxiety expressed on behalf of the neoliberal Mont Pelérin Society’s (MPS) to wit that ‘the central values of civilization are in danger’ is explicable against the threat of a decolonising world.11

The tragedies of neoliberal development

Consistent with this approach to the global commons was its combination with the idea of natural limits. From the late 1960s, limits on the commons became popularized as a problem of scarcity of energy supplies and population excess.12 Garrett Hardin’s parable Tragedy of the Commons (1968) drew on what he called the ‘cybernetics of competition’ to compute the consequences of population growth on ecological equilibria. He pictured herdsmen driven by the desire to maximise personal gain ultimately ruining common pastures for all.

Hardin’s parable was written as a critique of Adam Smith’s doctrine of laissez-faire, calling attention to the inevitable destruction of common resources by a rising population. He positioned his work as an ecological counterview to Smith, working in later papers to advocate for the close management of the commons through enclosure and privatisation. Echoing emergent neoliberal critiques of laissez-faire economies, Hardin argues that the tragedy of the commons could not be prevented by self-regulation, but required their mandatory enclosure and privatisation:

[…] the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.13

Whilst officially abjuring Hardin’s talk of overpopulation and limits, as well as his insistence on state coercion as requisite solution, Hardin’s parable provided neoliberal economists with the justification for interpreting scarce resources as common goods.

Together, the notions of “global commons” and “limits” underpinned a pragmatic approach to international markets and resources as a way of ‘handling a range of things according to a procedure of abstraction in which laws, norms, or values are derived from […] a common measure’.14 Supposedly operating across networks that didn’t recognise nation-state / market distinctions, this approach shifted attention from the local commons of newly sovereign, decolonised nations to a global commons and helped to justify interventionist forms of management as prophylactic measure against those pre-emptively judged to act against this common measure. What emerged was not a globalised system of free markets, but the development of neo-imperialist relations across borders.

Deemed authoritative by the IMF and the World Bank, Hardin’s allegory can be read, speculatively, as a symbol of a neoliberal struggle to protect global resources against the backdrop of post-war instability, providing justification for neo-colonial development. Hardin’s tragedy targeted the seemingly inevitable decisions of the global south, of ‘impoverished communities in developed states and the people of the Third World’.15 As with neoliberals more generally, Hardin relied on a characterisation of the human as homo economicus as the universal conditions of all social relations. However, as he made clear, there was a rift that lay within the concept of the human itself: between the rational liberal subject and the resource-grabbing other.

The era of structural adjustments, land-grabs, and militarised intervention was sedimented through these logics. As Rob Nixon argues, the figure of the herdsman in Hardin’s essay provides this racialized splitting with its neo-colonial mythos. The herdsman is the symbol of a decolonizing world. Following in the footsteps of Locke, the racialized herdsman is supposed incapable of the production of private property, now transmuted through the rational appropriation of market-based behaviour. In this way, Hardin ‘helped vindicate a neoliberal rescue narrative, whereby privatization through enclosure, dispossession, and resource capture is deemed necessary for averting tragedy’.16 Judged out of sync with the normative order of the global commons, coercion against people in the periphery was legitimised because they lacked the conscience necessary for its preservation.

On the latter, the corollary of interventionist economic coercion was the protectionism we have seen through the development of brutal migration controls, the proliferation of bordering practices, and the hardening of nation-states as primary political container and agent. The virulent protection of Britain’s property regimes required not just the expropriation of global resources, but also their fortification from possible incursion through the normalization and sanctification of ‘the national exclusion of economic migrants and other nonnationals, whom they designate as political strangers’.17 The theory of natural limits espoused by Hardin underpinned arguments for border controls, whilst discourses of the global commons legitimated international legal systems that governed the relative freedom of movement. For advocates of limits, the neo-Malthusian resurfacing of the population question was directed primarily at movements of populations across borders. Migration was an unnatural motor of population growth with poorer immigrants infiltration of wealthier countries creating the conditions for the disastrous breakdown of the supposedly natural limits defined by territorial borders.18

The theory of natural limits espoused by Hardin underpinned arguments for border controls, whilst discourses of the global commons legitimated international legal systems that governed the relative freedom of movement.

The Horizon of Extinction

At Heathrow a third runway is set to be sanctioned even after the British parliamentary declaration of the climate crisis as state of emergency. Heathrow is the single biggest contributor to carbon emissions in the UK, with aviation set to contribute more than any other sector by 2050. In travelling to Harmondsworth on train and bus and foot, the region is littered with signs protesting the building of a third runway. Its stakeholders are not just owners of capital but also unions in thrall to the protection and production of British jobs. The expansion would mean the destruction of the detention centre, to see its re-emergence on recoded greenbelt land likely slightly further north.

The runway will increase Heathrow’s carbon emissions by approximately 40%, yet they will appear as zero on the balance sheet. Tackling climate change has, for a long time, involved the acceptance of net-zero targets. These have incentivised creative carbon accounting, greenwashing, and eco-sensitive fossil fuel companies. It is likely that, in part, Heathrow’s expansion will look toward liquid natural gas (LNG) to cope with emissions targets. LNG is hailed by many in the global north as an ecological salve, becoming known as clean fossil fuel, whilst its CO2 emissions are still 81% of those of oil. The shift from fossil-oil to LNG is set to be the new, greener, aeronautical fuel that will power charter flights to cleanse the British nation from the supposed destabilisation of migrant bodies.

Its extraction is an instance of the continuation of informal imperial intervention operates via coalition in places that Britain never formally colonised like Mozambique. As Idai struck in the north of the country, the capital Maputo saw financiers and executives from the oil industry meet to flesh out plans for a massive-scale project in the north of Mozambique to extract and export LNG in tandem with the Mozambique government. Whilst few LNG projects have been approved globally, for US company Andarko Petroleum, the Rovuma Basin is set to transform Mozambique into a leading global energy supplier. Central to the project is Andarko’s building an LNG export facility on the coast in Cabo Delgado, expected to export up to 23 million metric tons of LNG per year.

LNG won’t just be used for our planes, we will cook with it and heat our homes as well. Centrica, whose headquarters are in Windsor, Berkshire, are the largest domestic energy supplier in the UK. A month or so before Idai, they confirmed the ongoing purchase of massive quantities of LNG from the project, in a 20 year-long contract. Operating under British Gas, the Centrica contract interweaves our homes with the fishing grounds being destroyed, with Quirimbas National park (a UNESCO biosphere reserve of coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds) being threatened. With projects begun before environmental impact assessments were made, dredging, waste disposal, and the immediate and after-effects of construction will destroy endangered plant and animal species. Oil spills and chemical and waste leaching are likely, toxic compounds used in lubricating drilling machines will become intricated into the food web, and there will be a significant increase in methane emissions.

To offset emissions, these fossil fuel companies plan to plant forests in the region. Rather than protect ecosystems that already absorb emissions, offsetting incentivises quick-fix compensation schemes, with tree plantations that reduce biodiversity on expropriated land. These creeping acts of assault on land are coupled with the forced displacement of people. Geographies of historical colonialism give shape to these forces that divide and destroy land and lives once again. Some of the machambas (farmlands) onto which the project is moving people are not arable because they had been degraded by colonial cotton-plantations.

Offsetting incentivises quick-fix compensation schemes, with tree plantations that reduce biodiversity on expropriated land. These creeping acts of assault on land are coupled with the forced displacement of people..

These interventions materially contribute to the conditions that lead to people’s movements through Africa and towards Europe – their movement propelled and shaped by neo-imperialism. This meets the sharp edge of purposive extinction in the exacerbations of climate change and the offsetting of carbon emissions to dominated nations. For example, Britain is the largest net importer of emissions per capita in the G7 group of wealthy nations, mostly due to its importing of goods manufactured abroad. Between 1992 and 2007, this increased by 200%. Effectively off-shoring the effects of climate-change to the waste-lands of the periphery, deaths are again brought to those whose land and livelihoods have been plundered time and time over.

Green Nationalism

The most aggressive political movement against climate in recent years has been Extinction Rebellion (XR). For them, nature becomes a powerful chaotic force from which we can no longer be cocooned. Their focus on imminent extinction folds apocalypse into the present, so making us all equal victims of a nature thrown off-balance. In the process, a nature out-of-sync becomes a common force that conceals the causes and effects of climate violence. As a consequence, their politics is grounded on the movement of a supposedly universal people against the crimes of humanity that have produced climate change. This populist undertaking is made out to be the condition of possibility for forcing the state to make the decisions necessary to see nature restored and our children’s future secured.

In their declaration of rebellion, it becomes clear that this reproductive nationalism is core to their drive to protect ‘all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come’. Focusing on how the ecological crisis is impacting the nation, they declare it our duty to act on behalf of the ‘security and well-being of our children’. The bounded nation and its perpetuation ground XR’s demands for securing a future beyond the horizon of extinction. The apocalyptic register within which their manifesto sits reinforces a logic of progressive politics for ‘us’ that is complicit with a securitized approach to threat. Under these conditions, XR petitions the state apparatus to ensure ‘adequate protection and security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future – to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future’. Behind this desire for securitization is the threat of climate change driving mass migration as crisis:

We are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly […] Flooding and desertification will render vast tracts of land uninhabitable and lead to mass migration.

This “green nationalism” frames migrant and climate crises as intertwined threats. The implicit logic of explicit calls for nation-based security is therefore the coupling of a universal commons with differential limits, whilst implicitly legitimating Britain’s violent bordering under threat of climate catastrophe. Neo-Malthusianism is made explicit here, with incursions on the nation and climate catastrophe collapsed into one another, creating a vicious circle that is forged under the imaginary of nature itself.

Neo-Malthusianism is made explicit in Extinction Rebellion, with incursions on the nation and climate catastrophe collapsed into one another, creating a vicious circle that is forged under the imaginary of nature itself.

In the process, what becomes clear is that the drive toward a nationalist political horizon in the age of global catastrophe is best understood as a cipher for geopolitical reconfigurations whose end is the lifeboat state. In the eschatological phase of Hardin’s tragedy, wealthier countries are likened to lifeboats that must be economically and ecologically stabilised by protection from the global poor. Whilst calling to mind the literal analogues of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, this is the broader, deterministic, outworking of the tragedy of the commons as a ‘theory of selective salvation propounded as a moral economy of “natural limits”’.19 A revanchist program of expansive accumulation through neo-colonial property regimes is repackaged by borders around the naturalised limits of nations. This fixes certain people in place, and remakes value procured by imperial and neo-imperial theft into the natural inheritance of wealthy nations. Whilst eco-fascism makes explicit the violence at the heart of this position, its liberal variant is written-off as a combination of natural disaster and incivility in the periphery together with austerity politics at home.

Both progressive politics and XR’s environmentalism rely on an image of disorder which foregrounds a notion of the natural order of the nation and obligates its necessary restoration. Brexit has brought forth calls to end racial prejudice in the face of increased racial violence and reconsider the movements of migrations across British borders, as if violence began in 2016. But Britain’s problems lie not just with discrimination and attitudes toward migration. Britain is built through hyper-exploitation, precarity, violent policing, surveillance, and the ultimate expendability of largely migrants of colour and people deemed to fall outside of its matrix of whiteness. The staging of the battle between global finance and markets against the natural order of a native labour force dramatizes an aesthetics of disordering and operates as an alibi for a politics in which increased protection against tragedy becomes imperative. National protectionism thus becomes essential and inextricable from securitization and militarized expulsion.

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  1. Quinn Slobodian. 2018. Globalists: The end of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

  2. Melinda E. Cooper. 2008. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Fernando Irving Elichirigoity. 1999. Planet Management: Limits to Growth, Computer Simulation, and the Emergence of Global Spaces. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Fabien Loucher. 2013. “Cold war pastures: Garrett Hardin and the “tragedy of the commons”.” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, (1). pp. 7-36. 

  3. Friedrich Hayek. 1988. The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism. London: Routledge. p. 59. 

  4. Friedrich Hayek. 1949. Individualism and Economic Order. London: Routledge. p. 88. 

  5. Philip Mirowski. 2014. “The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought Collective Under Erasure”. Institute for New Economic Thinking Working Papers 23. p. 12. 

  6. In Philip Mirowski. 2013. Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown. London: Verso, p. 53. 

  7. Friedrich Hayek. [1944]. 2001. The Road to Serfdom. Hove: Psychology Press. p. 40. 

  8. Michael P. Lynch. 2012. “Democracy as a Space of Reasons”. In edited by Jeremy Elkins and Andrew Norris. Truth in Politics. Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 117. 

  9. Friedrich Hayek. 1973. Rules and Order. Vol. 1 of Law, Legislation and Liberty. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 

  10. Mitchell Dean. 2014. “Rethinking Neoliberalism”. Journal of Sociology 50 (2). p. 159. 

  11. See the discussion in Slobodian. Globalists

  12. Alison Bashford. 2014. Global population: history, geopolitics and life on earth. Columbia University Press. Surabhi Ranganathan. 2016. “Global Commons”. European Journal of International Law 27 (3). pp. 693-717. 

  13. Garrett Hardin. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Science 162 (3859). pp. 1243-48. 

  14. Angela Mitropoulos. 2016. “The Commons”. In Edited by Iris van der Tuin. Gender: Nature (MacMillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks). Farmington Hills. Macmillan Reference USA. p. 176. 

  15. Ranganathan. “Global Commons”. p. 699. See also Sara Holiday Nelson. 2014. “Beyond the Limits to Growth: Ecology and the Neoliberal Counterrevolution”. Antipode 47. pp. 461-80. 

  16. Rob Nixon. 2012. “Neoliberalism, Genre and “The Tragedy of the Commons”.” PMLA 127 (3). p. 595-6. 

  17. Tendayi Achiume. 2019. “Migration as Decolonisation”. Stanford Law Review 71 (6). pp. 1509-73. Available online

  18. Garrett Hardin. 1974. “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor”. Psychology Today 8 (4). pp. 38-43. 

  19. Angela Mitropoulos. 2018. “Lifeboat Capitalism, Catastrophism, Borders”. Dispatches Journal 1. Avaliable online 


James Trafford (@james_trafford)

James Trafford is author of The Empire at Home: Internal Colonisation and the End of Britain (Pluto Press, 2020) and is currently working on the intersections of policing and racial capitalism.