The Real Tragedy of the Commons

I just finished reading Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll. I saw it mentioned in some article as a rebuttal to Hillbilly Elegy, a massive bestseller that argues that Appalachian poverty is caused almost entirely by the bad decisions of its residents, and the way to cure it it is to be exceptional and have exceptional luck. A logically impossible conclusion (we can’t all be exceptional), but the American appetite for that sort of story, that elevates (or condemns) the individual, and erases the impact of history, government, and corporations, is bottomless.

Ramp Hollow is unlike any history book I’ve ever read before. It tells the story of Appalachia, as a region that was populated by Native Americans, then white “mountaineers” who lived as subsistence farmer-hunter-gatherers. It tells how foreign land-owners, and the concept of “enclosure”, which turns common land, like grazing forest, into private property, killed the ability of Appalachian residents to continue to live as they had before. It makes the strong argument, by comparing the land takeover in Appalachia to land takeovers elsewhere, that that common, undeveloped land, usually forest or marsh, is an ecological cushion, and necessity for more developed land, and when it is gone, the way of life falls apart. And also that consuming that land is one of the first ways that capitalism encroaches on a local peasant economy.

Far from the commons being always exploited by individuals who have access to it, Ramp Hollow argues that the real tragedy of the commons is how often it is taken away from those who need it. We can see that today with library funding on the chopping block.) In communities focused on a local way of life, the community itself often polices the use of the commons to keep it available for everyone. We see the traditional tragedy of the commons more in the air and ocean which are dumping grounds for corporations that do far more harm that individuals can do.

Ramp Hollow tells the story of how outside forces like government and corporations, were hostile to the peasant farming way of life, not only because they wanted the land, but because these mountaineers were not cogs in a greater capitalist machine. They used some money and did some trade, but most of their economy was local and barter-based. But when logging companies and extraction companies came in, not only did their work take away the commons, but they also purposefully tried to cut off workers from their family connections and other sources of sustenance to make them more dependent on the corporations.

I’ve never read a book of history that shows so many parallels to other similar events, that draws in art, literature, anthropology, political theory, and the evolution of all those fields as the region and the country changed over time. I’ve also never read a book of history that ends with proposed legislation to help return the idea of land held in common to the residents of Appalachia. It is a cry for a kind of democratic socialism that focuses on the local, on the needs of the people who live closest to the land, and wants to give them the ability to manage their own economy, that does not think the solution to every problem is more education and moving to cities with job. I think it’s a fascinating read for understanding how the US and the world became what it is today.

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