As a discipline, International Relations is packed with parables. Sometimes, they are hypothetical stories and sometimes they are interpretations of historical events. In each case, they are meant to demonstrate something important about how world politics works. Almost without exception, some aspect of their validity can be questioned on either historical or logical grounds.
When it comes to global environmental politics, perhaps the most well-known such parable is the ‘tragedy of the commons.’ Garrett Hardin is generally credited with coming up with the idea in a paper published in 1968. That said, the same idea was expressed in Michael Graham’s 1948 book The Fish Gate, in which he described how fisheries where access is unlimited will inevitably become unprofitable and fail. The logic of an individual who cannot control the entirety of a resource grabbing as much as possible before its inevitable destruction is the key feature of both analyses.
Personally, I would rather give the credit for the idea to Graham, rather than to Hardin (though it probably far precedes either of them). After all, the latter thinker went on to write such logically and ethically dubious documents as Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor. In an illustrative passage, Hardin says:
A wise and competent government saves out of the production of the good years in anticipation of bad years to come. Joseph taught this policy to Pharaoh in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago. Yet the great majority of the governments in the world today do not follow such a policy. They lack either the wisdom or the competence, or both. Should those nations that do manage to put something aside be forced to come to the rescue each time an emergency occurs among the poor nations?
His assertion that affluent societies are such because their leaders have set aside a surplus in times of plenty, whereas the leaders of poor societies have not, represents a massively myopic and superficial understanding of the processes of wealth accumulation, as well as the interactions between historically dominant and historically oppressed states. Explaining patterns of development in such a simplistic way obscures important elements of world economic history. Going on to justify a cold-hearted ethic of indifference to suffering and injustice outside the rich world likewise represents inappropriate extrapolation and faulty thinking.