Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons


Wikipedia Overview:

The tragedy of the commons is a term used in social science to describe a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action. The concept and phrase originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a “common”) in the British Isles. The concept became widely known over a century later due to an article written by the American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin in 1968. In this modern economic context, commons is taken to mean any shared and unregulated resource such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or even an office refrigerator.

It has been argued that the very term ‘tragedy of the Commons’ is a misnomer, since ‘the commons’ referred to land resources with rights jointly owned by members of a community, and no individual outside the community had any access to the resource. However, the term is now used in social science and economics when describing a problem where all individuals have equal and open access to a resource. Hence, ‘tragedy of open access regimes’ or simply ‘the open access problem’ are more apt terms.

The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is often cited in connection with sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection, as well as in the debate over global warming. It has also been used in analyzing behavior in the fields of economics, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, game theory, politics, taxation and sociology.

Although common resource systems have been known to collapse due to overuse (such as in over-fishing), many examples have existed and still do exist where members of a community with access to a common resource co-operate or regulate to exploit those resources prudently without collapse.

Lloyd’s pamphlet

In 1833, the English economist William Forster Lloyd published a pamphlet which included a hypothetical example of over-use of a common resource. This was the situation of cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, as was the custom in English villages. He postulated that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing could result. For each additional animal, a herder could receive additional benefits, but the whole group shared damage to the commons. If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.

Garrett Hardin’s article

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in his article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, published in the journal Science. The essay derived its title from the pamphlet by Lloyd, which he cites, on the over-grazing of common land.

Hardin discussed problems that cannot be solved by technical means, as distinct from those with solutions that require “a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality”. Hardin focused on human population growth, the use of the Earth’s natural resources, and the welfare state. Hardin argued that if individuals relied on themselves alone, and not on the relationship of society and man, then the number of children had by each family would not be of public concern. Parents breeding excessively would leave fewer descendants because they would be unable to provide for each child adequately. Such negative feedback is found in the animal kingdom. Hardin said that if the children of improvident parents starved to death, if overbreeding was its own punishment, then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. Hardin blamed the welfare state for allowing the tragedy of the commons; where the state provides for children and supports overbreeding as a fundamental human right, Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable. Consequently, in his article, Hardin lamented the following proposal from the United Nations:

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. [Article 16] It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.
— U Thant, Statement on Population by the Secretary-General of the United Nations

In addition, Hardin also pointed out the problem of individuals acting in rational self-interest by claiming that if all members in a group used common resources for their own gain and with no regard for others, all resources would still eventually be depleted. Overall, Hardin argued against relying on conscience as a means of policing commons, suggesting that this favors selfish individuals – often known as free riders – over those who are more altruistic.

In the context of avoiding over-exploitation of common resources, Hardin concluded by restating Hegel’s maxim (which was quoted by Engels), “freedom is the recognition of necessity”. He suggested that “freedom” completes the tragedy of the commons. By recognizing resources as commons in the first place, and by recognizing that, as such, they require management, Hardin believed that humans “can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms”.

The “Commons” as a modern resource concept

Hardin’s article was the start of the modern use of “Commons” as a term connoting a shared resource. As Frank van Laerhoven & Elinor Ostrom have stated: “Prior to the publication of Hardin’s article on the tragedy of the commons (1968), titles containing the words ‘the commons’, ‘common pool resources,’ or ‘common property’ were very rare in the academic literature.” They go on to say: “In 2002, Barrett and Mabry conducted a major survey of biologists to determine which publications in the twentieth century had become classic books or benchmark publications in biology. They report that Hardin’s 1968 article was the one having the greatest career impact on biologists and is the most frequently cited”.
– Wikipedia: Tragedy of the Commons.


Tragedy of the Commons Articles:

Garrett Hardin: Science: 13 Dec 1968:

At the end of a thoughtful article on the future of nuclear war, Wiesner and York (1) concluded that: “Both sides in the arms race are … confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great powers continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation.” – Garrett Hardin: The Tragedy of the Commons.


Beryl Crowe: Science: 18 Nov 1969:

There has developed in the contemporary natural sciences a recognition that there is a subset of problems, such as population, atomic war, and environmental corruption, for which there are no technical solutions (1, 2). There is also an increasing recognition among contemporary social scientists that there is a subset of problems, such as population, atomic war, environmental corruption, and the recovery of a livable urban environment, for which there are no current political solutions (3). The thesis of this article is that the common area shared by these two subsets contains most of the critical problems that threaten the very existence of contemporary man. The importance of this area has not
been raised previously because of the very structure of modern society. This society, with its emphasis on differentiation and specialization, has led to the development of two insular scientific communities – the natural and the social-between which there is very little communication and a great deal of envy, suspicion, disdain, and competition
for scarce resources. Indeed, these two communities more closely resemble tribes living in close geographic proximity on university campuses than they resemble the “scientific culture” that C. P. Snow placed in contrast to and opposition to the “humanistic culture” (4). – Beryl Crowe: The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited.


Dennis Fox: American Psychologist: Jan 1985:

The failure of social scientists to seriously question their own ideological and methodological assumptions contributes to the complex interrelationship between global ecological and individual psychological problems. Much of the literature on the tragedy of the commons focuses on saving the global commons through increased centralization and regulation, at the expense of the individual’s autonomy and psychological sense of community. “Utopian” speculation in general and anarchist political analysis in particular are necessary correctives to misplaced attempts to merely rearrange the elements of the status quo rather than to radically alter it in a direction more in keeping with both survival and human dignity. – Dennis R Fox: Psychology, Ideology, Utopia, and the Commons.


Garrett Hardin: 01 May 1998:

It is easy to call for interdisciplinary syntheses, but will anyone respond? Scientists know how to train the young in narrowly focused work; but how do you teach people to stitch together established specialties that perhaps should not have been separated in the first place? Early in this century the specialties of biology and chemistry were joined to form biochemistry; similarly, economics and ecology are now in the process of being combined into ecological economics. My first attempt at interdisciplinary analysis led to an essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Since it first appeared in Science 25 years ago, it has been included in anthologies on ecology, environmentalism, health care, economics, population studies, law, political science, philosophy, ethics, geography, psychology, and sociology. It became required reading for a generation of students and teachers seeking to meld multiple disciplines in order to come up with better ways to live in balance with the environment. – Garrett Hardin, Extensions of “The Tragedy of the Commons.


Jay Hanson: DieOff: 29 Aug 1997:

There is now scientific consensus that humanity is “unsustainable,” and may have less than 35 years before the “functional integrity” of its life-support system is destroyed. Despite this staggering evidence of its colossal stupidity, humanity remains firmly committed to a paradoxical struggle against itself. Moreover, caught by an insatiable drive for power —like a school of sharks caught in a feeding frenzy—humanity resorts to self-deception and is conspicuously unable to rationally question its own premises. In this essay, I endeavor to point out the fatal flaw inherent in capitalism: the fatal freedom to exploit the commons. …. It is now obvious to anyone brave enough to look, that our continuing self-deception and exploitation no longer contribute to the survival of the species. If we are to survive, we must now recognize the necessity of giving up the fatal freedom to exploit the commons. Locke’s temporary war of all-against-nature must now come to an end. When a society is free to rob banks, it is less free, not more so. When individuals mutually agreed (passed laws) not to rob banks—gave up the freedom to rob banks—they became more free, not less so. Only by giving up our fatal freedom can we free ourselves from the inexorable, deadly logic of the commons. Only then can we become free to establish a new organizing principle for humanity. – Jay Hanson; The Fatal Freedom.


Elinor Ostrom et al: Science: 09 April 1999:

The writers describe the advances in understanding and managing commons problems that have occurred since 1968. In that year, Garrett Hardin argued in the seminal paper “The Tragedy of the Commons” that common-resource users are trapped in an inevitable process that leads to the destruction of the resources on which they depend. A critical lesson from the empirical studies of sustainable resources is that more solutions exist than Hardin suggested: Although humans assume a narrow, self-interested attitude in many settings, they can also use reciprocity to overcome social problems. Topics discussed include property rights, the successful farmer-managed systems of Nepal, and the challenges of global commons. – Elinor Ostrom et al; Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges.


SS DEFCON: Tragedy of the Commons:

SS Reports including reference to Tragedy of the Commons concept.