Posted by: Dan | June 25, 2009

Tragedy of the Commons Still Has Meaning

“The Tragedy of the Commons” is an influential article written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. It’s one of those pivotal articles at the dawn of the environmental and conservation movements, which describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen. challenged the philosophical assumption of Adam Smith that decisions reached individually will be the best decisions for an entire society and advocated “social arrangements” that produce responsibility. These arrangements might include some form of “mutually agreed upon coercion”, although perhaps “coercion and incentives” more accurately describes his intentions.

Today, the strongest criticisms of the environmentalist and conservationist political stances, advocating regulatory measures and incentives for directing human industry, are still being voiced by the intellectual descendants of Adam Smith. These critics – Libertarians – continue to take the position that anything benefiting individuals in a competitive economy is good, and any hindrance of those liberties is bad, even when scientists indicate that the opposite is the case.

As an example, one poignant example of this tragedy today is the unsustainable consumption levels of harvests from the oceans’ fisheries. The Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) estimates 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. And previous FAO reports from the late 1990s indicated that sixty percent of the world’s important fish stocks are “in urgent need of management.” Similarly, FAO’s 2008 State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture report describes, among other things, that 80% of the world’s oceans are fully exploited or overexploited (Part 1, p34). The status of Mediterranean fisheries is in a similar plight, with Bluefin Tuna stocks dropping by almost half over 8 years.

Other smaller over-exploitations as well. It is no secret that deforesting is still a drastic problem, particular in the world’s rain forests. And, locally to the Mediterranean, people hunt, trap, and eat tens of millions of bird migrants each year in Cyprus, Malta, and elsewhere, contributing to massive declines in a wide range of species who breed in Europe.

The numbers are staggering. Some declines of biodiversity will directly (and adversely) effect food availability for mankind’s bursting multitudes, while others will effect us more indirectly – and all will reduce the diversity of life on earth and it’s ecological equilibria. And humanity bears the weight of the responsibility.

Relatedly, Hardin also emphasized how the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. There are many pollutants that cause problems in the 21st century environment, but regulation has reigned in many different forms of pollution with varying degrees of success. One remaining problem is that of the floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere.

The other that has to-date been unaddressed remains CO2. Like it or not, there are difficulties in reducing carbon emissions. And the tragedy here is that no one is willing to take significant leadership on this problem least of all the United States of America.

And that is the ongoing and over-arching problem – no one is willing to take responsibility, and become leaders, on these excessive uses of resources and excessive release of wastes. These problems will not go away, and they remain tragedies of the commons.


  1. Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, sounds like something you might enjoy reading. You mention deforestation in your post, and Easter Island ( as well as the US Southwest’s Anasazi people ) stand as a compelling example of deforestation, in exactly the context you’re speaking of.

    One subtlety the book points out, is that the people making the choice to despoil the commons, are a small fraction of the people who suffer the consequences … and often remove themselves from feeling the full brunt. An example from today would be anybody who affects the crime rate, but lives in a gated community, and isn’t affected by crime. In the past, maladaptive decisions that hurt soil quality wouldn’t seem so dire to a king who always got the best food available, and didn’t experience the full force of declining agriculture production.

    On the other hand, at least in ancient societies, kings and chiefs tended to build public works ( often religious ) to keep their people happy. These ( the statues on Easter Island, for example ) demanded a lot of trees to be cut down to transport the stone monuments, and also demanded a lot of human muscle power ( and thus food ). Kings or chiefs would compete with one another to build the best monuments, and this was among the highest priorities … sure, trees were being lost, but these statues must be erected! A line that might sound familiar today is “If I don’t do it, someone else will.”

    After the last tree on Easter Island was felled, there were disastrous consequences for the people living there – all of them. There are many examples in the book, all ecological ( at least in the first 225 or so pages I’ve read thus far ), and with a recurring theme of “How could people do something that, in hindsight, seems so obviously wrong?”

    I don’t know that things happen(ed) exactly as Diamond describes, but it’s a fascinating read and group of case studies.

  2. Forrest,
    Yes, I have a copy of Diamond’s Collapse at home, and loved it. Thanks for mentioning it and its relevancy here – I hope others will take the tip and go read a copy.

  3. The blog Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy has different point of view if any readers-passersby are interested: Property Rights the Solution, Not the Problem. A snippet:

    The proper conclusion, not discussed by Hardin, was to introduce prices for access by removing its ‘free’ status. Each free user is not constrained to limit his use, but would be if property rights were introduced. Of course, this is anathema to most environmentalists, who regard commercial pricing as the cause of the problem when in fact it is the solution.

    This ‘proper conclusion’ is one good response. I doubt that any environmentalists however would regard it as anathema to take commercial pricing and apply it to the ‘commons.’ They’d love it in fact.

    Charging for access to the commons, as in cap-and-trade or carbon taxes to curb carbon emissions, are a great example of policies that environmentalists are in favor of (well, one or the other, anyway). The same strategy might, in theory, be applied to the other mentioned problems of the ‘commons.’


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