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An Abstract of "A General Statement of Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons"

Although "The Tragedy of the Commons" is widely acclaimed, activists in environmental causes as well as professionals in ethics continue to act as if the essay had never been written. They ignore the central thesis that traditional, a priori thinking in ethics is mistaken and must be discarded. Hence the need remains to give the tragedy of the commons a more general statement--one which can convince a wide public of the correctness of its method and principles. In essence Hardin's essay is a thought experiment. Its purpose is not to make a historical statement but rather to demonstrate that tragic consequences can follow from practicing mistaken moral theories. Then it proposes a system-sensitive ethics that can prevent tragedy. The general statement of the tragedy of the commons demonstrates that an a priori ethics constructed on human-centered, moral principles and a definition of equal justice cannot prevent and indeed always supports growth in population and consumption. Such growth, though not inevitable, is a constant threat. If continual growth should ever occur, it eventually causes the breakdown of the ecosystems which support civilization. Henceforth, any viable ethics must satisfy these related requirements:
(1) An acceptable system of ethics is contingent on its ability to preserve the ecosystems which sustain it.
(2) Biological necessity has a veto over the behavior which any set of moral beliefs can allow or require.
(3) Biological success is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for any acceptable ethical theory. In summary, no ethics can be grounded in biological impossibility; no ethics can be incoherent in that it requires ethical behavior that ends all further ethical behavior. Clearly any ethics which tries to do so is mistaken; it is wrong.

February 26, 1997
Herschel Elliott
Emeritus Philosophy
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611l

A General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons
by Herschel Elliott

Almost everyone recognizes that we must preserve our national heritage -- our parks and wildlife, our farms, our wetlands and forests. And few dare to doubt that equal justice and universal human rights are essential axioms of morality. Simultaneously people accept the necessity of protecting the environment and they also assume the moral obligation that every human being has an equal right to health, education, and employment, regardless of where a person is born or from where that person is fleeing hardship or persecution. To satisfy these demands it becomes a moral necessity to create more jobs, to build more housing, to expand the infrastructure, to produce more food and water, and to provide more sanitation, health care, and educational facilities. The only problem is that success in attaining these worthy goals is possible only in an infinite world where no conflict need ever arise between individual, societal, and environmental needs.

Only stubborn and muddled thinkers, however, can make believe that the world is infinite. The delusion of its infinity blinds them to the fact that all human activity must take place within the narrow range of resource use that the Earth can sustain. The ethical implications of the Earth's finitude are made clear in one of the world's great essays.

The author conducts a simple-seeming thought experiment in which he proves that any ethics is mistaken if it allows a growing population steadily to increase its exploitation of the ecosystem which supports it. Such an ethics is incoherent because it leads to the destruction of the biological resources on which survival depends; it lets people act in ways that make all further ethical behavior impossible. The essay in which this fundamental flaw in modern Western moral thinking is demonstrated is Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" (1968).

Activists in environmental causes as well as professionals in ethics have long applauded Hardin's essay. But then they go on to ignore its central thesis. They accept the environmental goals and then, acting as if the essay had never been written, recommend behavior which will cause the environmental commons to collapse. Consequently Hardin's refutation of traditional moral thinking still seems to be not understood. And the need remains to give the tragedy of the commons a more general statement -- one which can clarify its revolutionary character, one which can convince a wide public of the correctness of its method and principles.

Hardin himself fully understood the difficulty of his task. In the preface of Exploring New Ethics for Survival (1972), he wrote, For too long have we supposed that technology would solve the "population problem." It won't. I first became fully aware of this hard truth when I wrote my essay "The Tragedy of the commons," ... Never have I found anything so difficult to work into shape. I wrote at least seven significantly different versions before resting content with this one, ... . It was obvious that the internal resistance to what I found myself saying was terrific. As a scientist I wanted to find a scientific solution; but reason inexorably led me to conclude that the population problem could not possibly be solved without repudiating certain ethical beliefs and altering some of the political and economic arrangements of contemporary society (Hardin, 1972, p. ix).

And a bit later on in the same preface, he adds, As I set about securing the logical bases of my argument I was led, ... to go farther and farther back both in time and in logic to make the structure of the argument clear. This book is the result (Hardin, 1972, p. x).

I believe, however, that Hardin's essay not only requires the "repudiation" of certain ethical beliefs but it also requires the rejection of the whole paradigm on which the ethical and political thinking of the Western world is based. By showing that factual evidence can refute systems of ethical belief, the tragedy of the commons repudiates the a priori method which has long been used to justify ethical principles and obligations. By implication it repudiates the purely linguistic distinction between value and fact, that is, it denies that value claims and factual claims belong to such distinctly different domains that they cannot interact. It also denies that human rights are universal, and that specific moral laws and principles make unconditional demands on all mankind.

Specifically, the tragedy of the commons demonstrates that all behavior which is either morally permissible or morally required is system-sensitive whenever it involves the use of land or the transfer of matter or energy. That is, it is conditional on the size of the human population and the availability of material resources.

The more general statement of Hardin's tragedy of the commons which follows is divided into five sections. In the first, the theoretic nature of Hardin's argument is emphasized. In the second, several of Hardin's original assumptions are shown to be restrictive and unnecessary. The third offers four general premises which seem empirically certain. The fourth gives a general statement of the human causes of the breakdown of the commons. It demonstrates the same inbuilt contradiction between what benefits the individual or the human species and what is necessary to the welfare of the whole. The fifth part concerns ethical theory. It shows that the first necessary condition for acceptable moral behavior is to avoid the tragedy of the commons. Inevitably, meeting this goal requires holistic or coerced restraint in order to assure that people never fail to live within the narrow limits of the land and resource use which the Earth's biosystem can sustain. Thus people's first moral duty is to live as responsible and sustaining members of the world's community of living things.

Part I: The Theoretic Nature of the Tragedy of the Commons

Because the tragedy of the commons is written in everyday language, people overlook its theoretic nature. Mistakenly, I believe, some critics assume that the essay is talking about an actual commons. Such criticisms, however, are completely beside the point that Hardin is making. They confuse a proof of incoherence within a system of thought with a factual claim which they consider to be false. By contrast Hardin's essay can best be understood as a thought experiment. It proves that the unquestioned assumptions of modern ethical thinking are self-refuting; hence they must be revised or discarded.

Indeed Hardin's innovative argument in ethics is analogous to the thought experiment which Einstein used to demonstrate a contradiction within the set of assumptions that define Newtonian physics. To resolve that contradiction Einstein proposed the special theory of relativity. It should be noted that Einstein's thought experiment cannot be refuted by showing that no train could ever be engineered to travel in a Euclidean straight line at near the speed of light. Similarly Hardin's experiment cannot be refuted by showing that no simple commons could ever exist in which villagers maximize their personal gain by steadily increasing the size of their herds -- until they destroy the commons which supports them. In both cases, the thought experiment concerns only the inconsistency of an imaginary but possible state-of-affairs. Neither one makes a historical or a factual statement.

Specifically, Hardin's thought experiment with an imaginary commons demonstrates the futility -- the absurdity -- of much traditional ethical thinking. The sad fate of the imaginary commons on which people pasture their herds proves that moral principles can be refuted by facts -- the consequences caused when people live by those principles. It shows that if any ethics makes it advantageous for individuals or groups to increase their demands on the biological commons while it forces everyone to share equally the damage which that behavior causes, then the demise of the whole -- the ecosystem which supports that behavior -- is inevitable. Surely such an ethics is absurd. It refutes itself in the sense that it requires or allows ethical behavior which denies the possibility of further ethical behavior.

Part II: Three Assumptions which Divert Attention from Hardin's Thesis

Hardin's argument is of great importance and is powerfully persuasive. But, I believe, he has made some unnecessary assumptions. For example, his assumption of individualism and the free market system and his proof of the necessity of some form of societal coercion allows many liberals, humanists, religious leaders, and defenders of democracy (whose never-questioned moral and political convictions take no account of biological principles or physical limits) to reject his thesis without understanding it. Again his concern about over-population allows some people to accuse him of disregarding the environmental damage caused by wealthy nations and their run-away system of production and consumption. By pinning on him epithets like "racist," "elitist," "self-centered egoist," "capitalist," "fascist," and "apologist for private property," these critics find easy excuses for disregarding what is disturbing and revolutionary in Hardin's essay. Misdirected charges allow people to disregard the essential thesis, namely, that physical and biological determinants limit the range of options available for moral and political life.

Three assumptions seem to me to be unnecessary and restrictive. And they are not essential to Hardin's fundamental thesis. When they are removed, his argument can be given a more general statement, namely, that human behavior (whether it is thought to be grounded in economic self-interest or in the traditional moral ideal of self-denying altruism, in conservatism or liberalism, or in religious or secular humanism) incorporates inbuilt feed-back mechanisms which tend to cause constant economic growth and a steady increase in the human population.

Because continual growth is impossible in any finite domain, they all lead to the tragedy of the commons.

One restrictive assumption is that reason entails specific factual conclusions about human behavior. It requires, Hardin says, that "As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain" (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244). By immediate inference, Hardin's claim can be restated in a logically equivalent form: "Any herdsman or person who does not seek to maximize his (monetary) gain is irrational." But clearly this assumption about the nature of reason is false: reason can make no factual claims. In fact some people, who reason correctly, reason from different premises. They may choose to live simply so as to meet the needs of life with the least effort and with the least damaging impact on the environment. For such persons, simplicity and frugality can afford a better life because they allow more opportunity for leisure, for cultural or social activity, and for intellectual development. Such individuals may have no concern or interest in maximizing their material gain. No! One cannot assume, as Hardin does, that reason makes rational individuals seek any specific factual goals.

Another restrictive assumption is that individual self-interest is identified with certain modern conventions about private property, individual freedom, and the utility of maximizing wealth in the free market system. Note Hardin's words: Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he (each herdsman) asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?"

Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit -- in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all (Hardin, 1968, p.1244).

Clearly Hardin proves that when people in any finite biosystem accept the modern economic ideal of steadily increasing their wealth and consumption, a collapse of the commons which sustains them is inevitable.

But Hardin's proof applies only to a special case. In this passage, he ties individual behavior too closely in with the way of life found in modern industrialized societies. That is, he assumes that human behavior is determined by the commonly unquestioned assumption, namely, that the goal of all individuals is to improve the quality of their lives by steadily increasing their wealth and their consumption of goods and services within a free market system.

Tragedies of the commons, however, can have more general causes. The essential tragedy is not that the self-interest of individuals drives them continually to increase their use of the material resources within a commons. Rather, it is that if any individuals or societies -- regardless of the causes or ideals which drive them -- should steadily increase their exploitation of the finite ecosystem which supports them, then that system eventually will collapse. And the collapse will bring tragedy to the offending individuals or population.

In brief, tragedy is logically dependent only on the assumption that there is steady growth in the use of land or resources within any finite ecosystem; it is not logically dependent on the conventions of any specific political and economic system.

A third restrictive assumption narrows the tragedy of the commons to the problems caused by the unrestricted freedom to breed. Surely, a rapid and drastic reduction in the size of the present human population is the most difficult moral problem facing the world today. Surely, "The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding" (Hardin, 1968, p.1248). Indeed a rapid reduction in fertility is an immediate biological necessity for the two or three billion people who live in the world's poorest nations.

However, the march of events toward biological tragedy is also driven by the excessive consumption of the wealthy industrialized nations. Because of their huge and increasing appetite for luxury goods and travel, for lavish housing and gourmet foods, and for leisure and entertainment activities which have high energy and environmental costs, the citizens of the industrially powerful nations account for most of the destructive exploitation of land and biological resources that is occurring in every corner of the globe.

Nevertheless, the rich nations' contribution to pollution may soon be overwhelmed by the steady small increments in the standard of living of such huge populations as those of India and China. In any case, when driven by the needs of a rapidly expanding world population whether or not in combination with the demands of a growth-oriented consumer economy, a constant increase in the exploitation of the Earth's limited resources can only aggravate the stresses already placed on the Earth's ecosystems. The end point toward which this process tends is a rapid loss of the Earth's ability to support human society in its present form.

Part III: Four General Premises that Entail the Tragedy of the Commons

The conditions that force the breakdown of ecosystems require neither assumptions about the nature of reason, nor ones about maximizing personal gain in a free market system, nor ones about excessive fertility. If such presuppositions are dropped and replaced by four more general ones, Hardin's argument can be strengthened. Then prejudice and ability to rationalize need never give people an easy excuse for denying the conclusions of Hardin's crucial thought experiment. The more general premises seem factually certain and yet they entail, just as inexorably, the tragedy of the commons. They are:

(1) The Earth is finite: it has a limited stock of renewable fuels, minerals, and biological resources, a limited throughput of energy from the sun, and a finite sink for processing wastes.

(2) Although human activity very often does occur on privately owned lands which are not a commons, that and all other human activities take place in some larger natural commons. And that larger commons is a limited biosystem which is in a dynamic, competitive, and constantly evolving equilibrium. The equilibrium of an ecosystem can usually accommodate any activity on the part of its members as long as that activity is limited in amount and/or is practiced only by a small population. But continuous growth in the numbers of any organism or in its exploitation of land and resources will eventually exceed the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain that organism.

(3) Now for the first time on global scale human beings are exceeding the land and resource use which the Earth's biosystem can sustain.

(4) Certainly it is true, as Hardin noted, that individuals who seek to maximize their material consumption contribute to the ever increasing exploitation of the world's commons. But it is also true that all who follow the rarely questioned principles of humanitarian ethics -- to save all human lives, to relieve all human misery, to prevent and cure disease, to foster universal human rights, and to assure equal justice and equal opportunity for everyone -- do so also.

Thus severally and in conjunction, people -- from the most selfish individualists who seek to maximize personal wealth to the most self-sacrificing altruists who devote their lives to the elimination of inequality, injustice, and human suffering -- all work together to take more land, more water, more fuels, and biological resources away from all other living things. In short, all the principles which presently drive human activity steadily increase the destructive exploitation of the Earth's biological resources.

Part IV: The General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons

Now, for the first time in the world's history, a single species -- man -- has developed the technological and economic means to exploit the resources of all the Earth's ecosystems at once. Human beings can watch the gradual destruction by simplification of the Earth's biosystem. Some tell-tale signs of this global process appear as deforestation, desertification, pollution, climate change, and the rapid extinction of species. Others appear as shortages of land, water, and biological resources. All over the world, scarcity is driving people away from the countryside and out of the regions and nations that can no longer support them. Some make up the flood of political or economic refugees. Others migrate to cities where they cause urban sprawl and an intractable scarcity of jobs, sanitation, housing, and the necessary infrastructure. Even now in the megacities of the world, various forms of natural control are working to reduce the size of the human population and its excessive environmental demands. They include parental neglect, disease, unemployment, hopelessness, drug abuse, gratuitous violence, starvation, ethnic conflict, terrorism, and warfare. This kind of empirical evidence supports the generalization that human beings are now stressing the world's ecosystems.

Bolstered by the a priori, human-centered ethical doctrines of the monotheistic religions, everything that directs human behavior -- cultural and legal traditions, genetic determinants, the free-market economic system, and the material demands of industrial production -- all reinforce each other in producing a steady growth in population and consumption. Indeed as people all around the world go about the business of daily life, they demand more land, fuel, water, timber, and food. It is possible, however, that significant changes can be made in the complex of causes presently directing human activity which can put an end to the steady growth in population and to the constant increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. Nevertheless, if appropriate causal forces cannot be found to maintain human environmental demands in a sustainable equilibrium, then the step-by-step destruction of the Earth's ecosystems will remain the persisting -- and eventually tragic -- characteristic of human activity.

Ecosystems have their own dynamic structure. Feedback mechanisms have evolved to maintain their stability. For example, one species may become dominant and take over much of the land and most of the biological resources in some ecosystem. And continued growth may have no destabilizing effects for quite some time. But as more and more of the system's biological wealth is concentrated in the bodies and artifacts of an exuberant species, other species evolve the means to utilize the abundant food source. Then as the newly adapted predators increase in number, they reduce the population of the prolific species. If, however, such controls should fail, the continued growth of any organism at some point will begin to stress the ecosystem which sustains that organism. Finally the additional stress of continued growth will make the system collapse, suddenly and apparently without warning. Nature does control any exuberant species either by drastically reducing its population or by its extinction.

This sequence of biological events is of decisive importance for ethics. It proves that the two opposing theories of ethics which presently vie for acceptance both lead to tragedy. Both an ethics grounded in a self-centered individualism and an ethics which builds on the need for a self-sacrificing altruism have the same inherent defects. Both have inbuilt, positive feedback mechanisms which cause a steady increase in the human exploitation of the Earth's biological resources. All such material demands, however, are constrained by the limited resource use which the biosystem can sustain. Exceeding this carrying capacity will cause that system to collapse into a simpler state which is incapable of supporting civilization in its present form and perhaps most of the complex forms of mammalian life as well. This is the tragedy that awaits mankind, if people do not begin to live as responsible members of the Earth's system of mutually sustaining life forms.

Part V: Deliberate Restraint as a Moral Necessity

Hardin has correctly noted that nature has devised the means by which "to commensurate the incommensurables," that is, to resolve the conflicting needs and interests of all of the Earth's various life forms. For example, natural selection has allowed some animals to find their niche by being short-lived but highly prolific. Others compete by being large, long-lived, and highly protective of their few offspring.

Nature also controls the fertility of prolific and irresponsible parents by letting their excess offspring die of neglect, disease, or starvation. In addition, the excess population of exuberant species is curbed by allowing an algae bloom to cause an algae bust. But the means by which nature forces its life forms to live within its limits would be unnecessary in human affairs if people used other means to achieve the restraint which nature demands.

However, avoiding the cruel coercion of nature cannot be achieved as if by miracle or accident. Admittedly, the tendencies which support unlimited growth and which are built into the patterns of human behavior do not inevitably produce growth. But they will do so unless opposing causes can be made to predominate. By analogy, the tendencies to growth are like a window opened on a cold winter's day. A comfortable room temperature cannot be maintained by opening more windows and doors to the cold air outside. Unless more fuel is added to the fire or unless glass traps the sun's heat inside, the room will cool down. Similarly steady growth cannot be countered by doing more of what has caused the growth in the first place. To avoid the cruel coercion of nature, society must discover controls which are warranted empirically by their ability to prevent growth in population and to stop the destruction of the Earth's biosystem by steady increases in the exploitation of biological resources.

Learning the effective means for controlling growth requires the repudiation of important causal misconceptions.

(1) People must reject the doctrine that moral behavior can be justified by a priori thought which requires no knowledge of the causes of growth and no knowledge of its ecological consequences.
(2) People must discard the misconception that yet more economic growth and still greater consumption will cause a demographic transition in which the human population will become stable at ecologically sustainable levels automatically and painlessly.
(3) They must recognize that the moral obligations to fill all vital human needs can never cause those needs to diminish and can never cause people to stop their destructive exploitation of the environment.
(4) They must reject the notion that exhorting people voluntarily to protect the environment and to reduce their fertility is not an empirically effective means for accomplishing these morally necessary goals.
(5) They must disabuse themselves of the conviction that, under the conditions of a steadily increasing population, the enforcement of the presently accepted moral system -- defined by its human-centered ideals, its unconditional principles and its egalitarian definition of justice and human rights -- can ever reduce human suffering or prevent environmental disaster.
(6) Finally, the belief must be discarded that an ethics of good intentions, especially those intentions directed to filling individual or human needs, will automatically produce the good of the whole.

These misconceptions must be abandoned, if ever growth in population and in the exploitation of natural resources is to cease to be a persisting -- and eventually tragic -- characteristic of human activity. Means must never work at cross purposes with the necessary ends. They must be proved by empirical evidence to be able to attain -- not to thwart -- the necessary holistic goals.

I believe that Hardin has understood and correctly stated the moral problem of directing individual behavior to attain holistic (i.e., societal and environmental) goals. He bluntly states that controls are social arrangements which create coercion, of some sort. ... Coercion is a dirty word ... . As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment (Hardin, 1968, p.1247).

For example, the payment of taxes is coercion; public subsidies for schools are coercion because those who do not need or use them are forced to pay for the schools of those who do; building permits are coercion because they force home builders to observe building codes whether or not those codes are relevant at an specific site to public health or the needs of an individual. In short, as Hardin uses the term, coercion is the general term which refers to the various means which society uses to direct or control the behavior of individual citizens.

And later on he adds, It is the newly proposed infringements (on our use of a commons) that we vigorously oppose; cries of "rights" and "freedom" fill the air. But what does "freedom" mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, "Freedom is the recognition of necessity" (Hardin, 1968, p.1248).

Indeed coercion need not be tyranny. On the contrary, effective and unobtrusive coercion in a commons is a necessary condition for having any enduring freedom at all.

Because misconceived coercive means are either ineffective or counterproductive, they often cause oppression and tyranny rather than prevent them. Many examples can be found that illustrate the futility of misconceived means to accomplish holistic ends.
(1) My son cannot be expected to learn to control his finances if he is free to run up whatever debt he wants and I have the obligation to pay it.
(2) The environment is unlikely ever to be protected when all are free to use as much energy and to consume as many goods and services as they can afford while society honors the moral obligation to supply the material necessities to everyone who lacks money.
(3) Significant incentives operate to increase the incidence of disease (and thereby raise medical costs) when all who take good care of their own health are forced to pay a disproportionate share of the medical and disability costs of those who abuse their bodies with tobacco, alcohol, narcotics, uninhibited and unprotected sexual contacts, overeating, and lack of exercise.
(4) No population is likely to remain stable as long as individuals are free to have as many children as they want while society at large has the moral obligation to pay for food, medical care, schools, and the increase in sanitary and employment facilities necessary to support all the children of parents who cannot do so.
(5) No nation (like North Korea) can be expected to rid itself of an oppressive tyranny or develop an effective economic system if its government is free from all foreign constraint and interference while the rest of mankind is morally obliged to supply food, medical, and financial aid to its suffering citizens and thus bolster that tyranny.
(6) The reliance on the free-will decisions of conscientious people is self-eliminating, because it rewards those who have no conscience by letting them do and take what they wish while it punishes the conscientious by making them bear the penalties of depravation. In summary, causation does work in matters of moral behavior. Specifically, systems of moral belief are self-refuting if, when actually practiced and enforced, they subvert the moral goals which they were intended to attain.

Human beings are in a unique and fortunate position among all living things in that they have language, memory, and intelligence. These abilities allow them to accumulate factual knowledge. And this knowledge, in turn, makes it possible for them to break out the patterns of behavior normally determined by habit, culture, religion, and genetic endowment. When knowledge of the structure and limits of the Earth's biosystem is gained and acted on, it can lead people to live as sustaining members of the Earth's biotic community. People can maintain a limited, stable population; they can minimize their use of physical and biological resources. There is, however, no assurance that people will allow ecological knowledge to direct their moral behavior rather than let it be controlled by a priori assumptions or appeals to habit and tradition. Nevertheless the challenging possibility exists: moral behavior can avoid the tragedy of the commons even while it is directed, secondarily, to the task of steadily improving the quality of human life.

As in Hardin's original essay, the general statement of the tragedy of the commons also demonstrates that ethical behavior requires holistic or societal control. In the case of many nations, the most effective means for them to learn the need for societal constraint may be for others to do nothing but stand back and watch. Just as a good parent may let a child fall down and get up and fall again as it learns to walk, so, too, many nations may only discover the need to reduce their populations and to limit their use of natural resources by allowing their people to suffer through the task of learning to live within the carrying capacity of their nation's boundaries.

The means which Hardin recommends, for protecting the commons is deliberate, societal coercion. Preferably it is mutual restraint, mutually agreed on, and mutually enforced. Furthermore, knowledge of the most effective and humane means of societal coercion is empirical knowledge. And like all empirical knowledge, it requires constant experimentation, revision, and correction. As such, it can never be certain; it can never be final. And since final truth concerning matters of morality is impossible, the moral choice, as Hardin has so aptly emphasized, can never be between perfectly just coercion and none at all for then people will be free to cause the collapse of the environmental commons and the end of nature's experiment with human kind. Clearly imperfect forms of coercion are preferable to none at all. They are like mistaken theories in science -- at some future time they can be refuted and corrected or discarded. Imperfectly just coercive measures can be improved indefinitely. Thus it is important to note that the need for control does not make any claim about the type of coercion that different societies must practice. The moral challenge is to make the coercion as painless, as humane, and as unobtrusive as possible as long as it accomplishes the necessary holistic goal: it must prevent the tragedy of the commons and preserve the dynamic stability of the Earth's system of living things. And after this primary goal is secure, the secondary moral goal can be addressed -- that of improving the quality of life as people learn to unfold the evolving potential of being human. There is, however, no assurance that people have the will and the intelligence to live within the necessary limits of nature. To do so is the difficult but challenging task of ethics.

A Summary and Overview

Now for the first time in history, the cumulative effect of human activity has become a major and perhaps the dominant force affecting the Earth's ecosystems. Under these novel conditions, a drastic change is necessary in the way in which ethics itself is conceived and moral practices are justified. Just as Einstein's thought experiment called for a revolution in physical theory, so the general statement of the tragedy of the commons proves that a revolution in moral theory is necessary. Both require the rejection of established belief systems.

Einstein's experiment proved that the coordinates of space, time, and mass cannot be simple and unchanging throughout the universe. Hardin's experiment proved that moral principles (such as equal justice, human rights, and moral obligations) cannot be universal and unconditional in all social and environmental contexts. Henceforth, in both disciplines the basic concepts and principles must be recognized to be system-dependent, system-relative.

It should be noted, however, that system-relativity is not the same as skeptical relativism. System-relativity allows unequivocal truth claims to be made, but they must change so as to be appropriate for the context in which they occur. Thus as human activity comes to dominate the Earth's ecosystems, the nature of ethics must be differently conceived.

Correct ethical behavior can no longer be deduced from a set of principles, rights, and obligations which are invariant in time and universal in application. Instead, ethical behavior must be relative to its most important goal -- to protect and sustain the Earth's diverse yet mutually supporting system of living things. Thereafter the secondary goal of ethics may be addressed, namely, to maximize the quality of human life.

The system-dependent nature of moral behavior entails decisive changes in ethical theory or in the decisions that affect the do's and don't's of daily life. Five are worthy of emphasizing.

First, people can no longer assume that moral acts are autonomous, that they are simple consequences of a good will. People can no longer make believe that moral behavior takes place in an infinite domain of thought in which the members of the moral community have duties and obligations which are timeless, necessary, and never constrained by material shortage. Instead moral behavior is complex. Under the present almost universal conditions of crowding, most human acts pull with them a tangled skein of benefit and harm. Simple human acts, acts that are benign or even morally necessary when practiced on a small or limited scale, become tragic, even disastrous, when those same types of act are practiced on a large scale or by everyone. In many cases the morality of as act is a function of the number of people doing that kind of act.

Indeed an individual's behavior can no longer be judged to be moral merely because its motive conforms to unchanging ideals and principles. This traditional subjective criterion for assessing moral behavior must be discarded because it is often irrelevant and even counterproductive.

The second is a corollary of the first. Most people in the Western world hold a serious moral misconception which must be discarded.

Having been brought up or educated under the formative influence of a monotheistic religion, they commonly believe, without question, examination, or discussion, that the ideals and principles of moral behavior can be justified non-empirically, that is by reason or a priori thought. As a result, moral claims are treated as if they were like the conclusion of geometric proof whose truth is a matter of a logical necessity that empirical data cannot refute. However, the tragedy of the commons shows the absurdity of this claim. Because most human rights, laws, and freedoms are contingent on the ability of the Earth's ecosystems to support them, most cannot be universal, necessary, and unconditional. And no a priori arguments -- no appeals to reason, to conscience, to God's Word, or to the logic of moral language -- can make them so. Indeed none of the human-centered obligations of a priori ethical theories can curb the inbuilt, positive feedback mechanisms which are now causing the ever greater impoverishment of the world's ecosystems. And none can be adjusted to meet the holistic needs of the Earth's evolving biosystem. These are the inherent defects which prove the belief must be abandoned that a priori reasoning can determine, for all time, the ideals and principles of ethics as well as the nature of justice itself.

Third, all systems of ethical beliefs are hypotheses about how human beings can live on Earth. As such, they make factual claims. And like all factual claims, their truth or falsity depends on empirical evidence. For this reason, the sequence of biological events which the general statement of the tragedy of the commons describes is of decisive importance for ethical theory. It shows
(1) that moral behavior must be grounded in a knowledge of biology and ecology,
(2) that moral obligations must be empirically tested to attain necessary biological goals,
(3) that any system of moral practices is self-inconsistent when the behavior, which it either allows or makes morally obligatory, actually subverts the goal it seeks. Thus empirical criteria give a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for acceptable moral behavior. Regardless of the human proclivity to rationalize, any system of ethical beliefs is mistaken if its practice would cause the breakdown of the ecosystem which sustains the people who live by it. Indeed, biological necessity has a veto over moral behavior. Facts can refute moral beliefs.

Fourth, ecosystems are in dynamic equilibrium. In addition, technology and human institutions are constantly evolving in novel and unpredictable ways. Furthermore, living things must compete with each other for space and resources; yet each organism also depends symbiotically on the well-being of the whole for its own survival and well-being. Indeed the welfare of all organisms -- including human beings -- is causally dependent on the health and stability of the ecosystems which sustain them. As a consequence, the stability and well-being of the Earth's biosystem has moral priority over the welfare of any of its parts -- including the needs and interests of human societies and individuals.

Fifth, human beings are in a biologically unique situation: empirical knowledge can guide their behavior. Indeed, intelligent behavior can free people from the rigors of physical and biological determinism. It should be noted, however, that this freedom is not absolute, for human behavior is still determined. But, instead of being determined solely by genes, habit, and cultural conditioning, it can be modified by the memory of individuals' useful past experience augmented by the recorded successes of the human race. Thus although biological necessity has a veto over what people may want and hope, empirical knowledge can guide human behavior. And that knowledge clearly indicates that holistic planning and societally enforced constraint are the means necessary to prevent the tragic breakdown of the Earth's biosystem.

Further experimental evidence is required to disclose the kind of controls which will be most effective, most humane, and most protective of personal life and freedom. Then as people learn the least obtrusive and most effective means for making human activity conform to biological necessity, moral attention can be directed to the narrower human concerns. Human beings and their descendants can learn how best to realize the evolving potential of being human. Moral effort will no longer be wasted in the futile attempt to enforce the status quo of accepted ideals and moral principles as if they were necessary and immutable. When thus grounded in the nature and needs of life rather than in the abstract relationships between the elements of an a priori system of thought, ethics can take its place among all the other human endeavors -- science, medicine, technology, art, music, and literature.

All are on-going and creative human enterprises. All increase steadily in scope, in effectiveness, and in significance. Ethics must do so also.


Hardin, Garrett, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science, Vol. 162, December 1968, pp. 1243-1248.

Hardin, Garrett, Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle, The Viking Press, New York, 1972.

Herschel Elliott
1915 N. E. 75 Street
Gainesville, FL 32641-2794
February 7, 1997 Words: 6661

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.[1] The concept became widely known over a century later due to an article written by the American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin in 1968.[2] 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.[3]'

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.[4][5]


Lloyd's pamphlet[edit]

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.[6]

Garrett Hardin's article[edit]

The Tragedy of the Commons
Presented13 December 1968
Author(s)Garrett Hardin
Media typeArticle

In 1968, ecologistGarrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in his article "The Tragedy of the Commons", published in the journal Science.[2][7] 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.[8] 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.[8] 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.[8] 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[9]] 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[10]

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[edit]

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".[11]


Metaphoric meaning[edit]

Like Lloyd and Thomas Malthus before him, Hardin was primarily interested in the problem of human population growth. But in his essay, he also focused on the use of larger (though finite) resources such as the Earth's atmosphere and oceans, as well as pointing out the "negative commons" of pollution (i.e., instead of dealing with the deliberate privatization of a positive resource, a "negative commons" deals with the deliberate commonization of a negative cost, pollution).

As a metaphor, the tragedy of the commons should not be taken too literally. The "tragedy" is not in the word's conventional or theatric sense, nor a condemnation of the processes that lead to it. Similarly, Hardin's use of "commons" has frequently been misunderstood, leading him to later remark that he should have titled his work "The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons".[12][13]

The metaphor illustrates the argument that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to the point in which they become reliant on it, while the costs of the exploitation are borne by all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball until the resource collapses (even if it retains a capacity to recover). The rate at which depletion of the resource is realized depends primarily on three factors: the number of users wanting to consume the common in question, the consumptiveness of their uses, and the relative robustness of the common.[14]

The same concept is sometimes called the "tragedy of the fishers", because fishing too many fish before or during breeding could cause stocks to plummet.[15]

Modern commons[edit]

The tragedy of the commons can be considered in relation to environmental issues such as sustainability. The commons dilemma stands as a model for a great variety of resource problems in society today, such as water, forests,[16] fish, and non-renewable energy sources such as oil and coal.

Situations exemplifying the "tragedy of the commons" include the overfishing and destruction of the Grand Banks, the destruction of salmon runs on rivers that have been dammed – most prominently in modern times on the Columbia River in the Northwest United States, and historically in North Atlantic rivers – the devastation of the sturgeon fishery – in modern Russia, but historically in the United States as well – and, in terms of water supply, the limited water available in arid regions (e.g., the area of the Aral Sea) and the Los Angeles water system supply, especially at Mono Lake and Owens Lake.

In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Negative externalities are a well-known feature of the "tragedy of the commons". For example, driving cars has many negative externalities; these include pollution, carbon emissions, and traffic accidents. Every time 'Person A' gets in a car, it becomes more likely that 'Person Z' – and millions of others – will suffer in each of those areas.[17] Economists often urge the government to adopt policies that "internalize" an externality.[18]


More general examples (some alluded to by Hardin) of potential and actual tragedies include:

  • Planet Earthecology
  • Publicly shared resources

Application to evolutionary biology[edit]

A parallel was drawn recently between the tragedy of the commons and the competing behaviour of parasites that through acting selfishly eventually diminish or destroy their common host.[27] The idea has also been applied to areas such as the evolution of virulence or sexual conflict, where males may fatally harm females when competing for matings.[28] It is also raised as a question in studies of social insects, where scientists wish to understand why insect workers do not undermine the "common good" by laying eggs of their own and causing a breakdown of the society.

The idea of evolutionary suicide, where adaptation at the level of the individual causes the whole species or population to be driven extinct, can be seen as an extreme form of an evolutionary tragedy of the commons.[29][30] From an evolutionary point of view, the creation of the tragedy of the commons in pathogenic microbes may provide us with advanced therapeutic methods.[31]

Commons dilemma[edit]

The commons dilemma is a specific class of social dilemma in which people's short-term selfish interests are at odds with long-term group interests and the common good.[32] In academia, a range of related terminology has also been used as shorthand for the theory or aspects of it, including resource dilemma, take-some dilemma, and common pool resource.

Commons dilemma researchers have studied conditions under which groups and communities are likely to under- or over-harvest common resources in both the laboratory and field. Research programs have concentrated on a number of motivational, strategic, and structural factors that might be conducive to management of commons.

In game theory, which constructs mathematical models for individuals' behavior in strategic situations, the corresponding "game", developed by Hardin, is known as the Commonize Costs – Privatize Profits Game (CC–PP game).

Psychological factors[edit]

Kopelman, Weber, & Messick (2002), in a review of the experimental research on cooperation in commons dilemmas, identify nine classes of independent variables that influence cooperation in commons dilemmas: social motives, gender, payoff structure, uncertainty, power and status, group size, communication, causes, and frames. They organize these classes and distinguish between psychological individual differences (stable personality traits) and situational factors (the environment). Situational factors include both the task (social and decision structure) and the perception of the task.[33]

Empirical findings support the theoretical argument that the cultural group is a critical factor that needs to be studied in the context of situational variables.[34] Rather than behaving in line with economic incentives, people are likely to approach the decision to cooperate with an appropriateness framework.[35] An expanded, four factor model of the Logic of Appropriateness,[36][37] suggests that the cooperation is better explained by the question: "What does a person like me (identity) do (rules) in a situation like this (recognition) given this culture (group)?"

Strategic factors[edit]

Strategic factors also matter in commons dilemmas. One often-studied strategic factor is the order in which people take harvests from the resource. In simultaneous play, all people harvest at the same time, whereas in sequential play people harvest from the pool according to a predetermined sequence – first, second, third, etc. There is a clear order effect in the latter games: the harvests of those who come first – the leaders – are higher than the harvest of those coming later – the followers. The interpretation of this effect is that the first players feel entitled to take more. With sequential play, individuals adopt a first come-first served rule, whereas with simultaneous play people may adopt an equality rule. Another strategic factor is the ability to build up reputations. Research[by whom?] found that people take less from the common pool in public situations than in anonymous private situations. Moreover, those who harvest less gain greater prestige and influence within their group.

Structural factors[edit]

Much research has focused on when and why people would like to structurally rearrange the commons to prevent a tragedy. Hardin stated in his analysis of the tragedy of the commons that "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."[38] One of the proposed solutions is to appoint a leader to regulate access to the common. Groups are more likely to endorse a leader when a common resource is being depleted and when managing a common resource is perceived as a difficult task. Groups prefer leaders who are elected, democratic, and prototypical of the group, and these leader types are more successful in enforcing cooperation. A general aversion to autocratic leadership exists, although it may be an effective solution, possibly because of the fear of power abuse and corruption.

The provision of rewards and punishments may also be effective in preserving common resources. Selective punishments for overuse can be effective in promoting domestic water and energy conservation – for example, through installing water and electricity meters in houses. Selective rewards work, provided that they are open to everyone. An experimental carpool lane in the Netherlands failed because car commuters did not feel they were able to organize a carpool.[39] The rewards do not have to be tangible. In Canada, utilities considered putting "smiley faces" on electricity bills of customers below the average consumption of that customer`s neighborhood.[40]


See also: Externality § Possible solutions

Articulating solutions to the tragedy of the commons is one of the main problems of political philosophy. In many situations, locals implement (often complex) social schemes that work well. The best governmental solution may be to do nothing. When these fail, there are many possible governmental solutions such as privatization, internalizing the externalities, and regulation.

Non-governmental solution[edit]

Sometimes the best governmental solution may be to do nothing. Robert Axelrod contends that even self-interested individuals will often find ways to cooperate, because collective restraint serves both the collective and individual interests.[41] Anthropologist G. N. Appell criticized those who cited Hardin to "impos[e] their own economic and environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have incomplete understanding and knowledge."[42]

Political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded 2009's Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on the issue, and others revisited Hardin's work in 1999.[43] They found the tragedy of the commons not as prevalent or as difficult to solve as Hardin maintained, since locals have often come up with solutions to the commons problem themselves.[44] For example, it was found that a commons in the Swiss Alps has been run by a collective of farmers there to their mutual and individual benefit since 1517, in spite of the farmers also having access to their own farmland. In general, it is in the users of a commons interests to keep the common running and complex social schemes are often invented by the users for maintaining them at optimum efficiency.[45][46]

Similarly, geographer Douglas L. Johnson remarks that many nomadic pastoralist societies of Africa and the Middle East in fact "balanced local stocking ratios against seasonal rangeland conditions in ways that were ecologically sound", reflecting a desire for lower risk rather than higher profit; in spite of this, it was often the case that "the nomad was blamed for problems that were not of his own making and were a product of alien forces."[47] Independently finding precedent in the opinions of previous scholars such as Ibn Khaldun as well as common currency in antagonistic cultural attitudes towards non-sedentary peoples,[47] governments and international organizations have made use of Hardin's work to help justify restrictions on land access and the eventual sedentarization of pastoral nomads despite its weak empirical basis. Examining relations between historically nomadic Bedouin Arabs and the Syrian state in the 20th century, Dawn Chatty notes that "Hardin's argument […] was curiously accepted as the fundamental explanation for the degradation of the steppe land" in development schemes for the arid interior of the country, downplaying the larger role of agricultural overexploitation in desertification as it melded with prevailing nationalist ideology which viewed nomads as socially backward and economically harmful.[48]

Elinor Ostrom, and her colleagues looked at how real-world communities manage communal resources, such as fisheries, land irrigation systems, and farmlands, and they identified a number of factors conducive to successful resource management. One factor is the resource itself; resources with definable boundaries (e.g., land) can be preserved much more easily. A second factor is resource dependence; there must be a perceptible threat of resource depletion, and it must be difficult to find substitutes. The third is the presence of a community; small and stable populations with a thick social network and social norms promoting conservation do better.[45] A final condition is that there be appropriate community-based rules and procedures in place with built-in incentives for responsible use and punishments for overuse. When the commons is taken over by non-locals, those solutions can no longer be used.[44]

Governmental solutions[edit]

Governmental solutions may be necessary when the above conditions are not met (such as a community being too big or too unstable to provide a thick social network). Examples of government regulation include privatization, regulation, and internalizing the externalities.


One solution for some resources is to convert common good into private property, giving the new owner an incentive to enforce its sustainability. Libertarians and classical liberals cite the tragedy of the commons as an example of what happens when Lockean property rights to homestead resources are prohibited by a government.[49] They argue that the solution to the tragedy of the commons is to allow individuals to take over the property rights of a resource, that is, to privatize it.[50]


In a typical example, governmental regulations can limit the amount of a common good that is available for use by any individual. Permit systems for extractive economic activities including mining, fishing, hunting, livestock raising and timber extraction are examples of this approach. Similarly, limits to pollution are examples of governmental intervention on behalf of the commons. This idea is used by the United NationsMoon Treaty, Outer Space Treaty and Law of the Sea Treaty as well as the UNESCOWorld Heritage Convention which involves the international law principle that designates some areas or resources the Common Heritage of Mankind.[51]

In Hardin's essay, he proposed that the solution to the problem of overpopulation must be based on "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" and result in "relinquishing the freedom to breed". Hardin discussed this topic further in a 1979 book, Managing the Commons, co-written with John A. Baden.[52] He framed this prescription in terms of needing to restrict the "reproductive right", to safeguard all other rights. Several countries have a variety of population control laws in place.

German historian Joachim Radkau thought Hardin advocates strict management of common goods via increased government involvement or international regulation bodies.[53] An asserted impending "tragedy of the commons" is frequently warned of as a consequence of the adoption of policies which restrict private property and espouse expansion of public property.[54][55]

Internalizing externalities[edit]

Privatization works when the person who owns the property (or rights of access to that property) pays the full price of its exploitation. As discussed above negative externalities (negative results, such as air or water pollution, that do not proportionately affect the user of the resource) is often a feature driving the tragedy of the commons. Internalizing the externalities, in other words ensuring that the users of resource pay for all of the consequences of its use, can provide an alternate solution between privatization and regulation. One example is gasoline taxes which are intended to include both the cost of road maintenance and of air pollution. This solution can provide the flexibility of privatization while minimizing the amount of government oversight and overhead that is needed.


The environmentalist Derrick Jensen claims the tragedy of the commons is used as propaganda for private ownership.[56] He says it has been used by the political right wing to hasten the final enclosure of the "common resources" of third world and indigenous people worldwide, as a part of the Washington Consensus. He argues that in true situations, those who abuse the commons would have been warned to desist and if they failed would have punitive sanctions against them. He says that rather than being called "The Tragedy of the Commons", it should be called "the Tragedy of the Failure of the Commons".

Hardin's work was also criticised[57] as historically inaccurate in failing to account for the demographic transition, and for failing to distinguish between common property and open access resources.[58] In a similar vein, Carl Dahlman argues that commons were effectively managed to prevent overgrazing.[59] Likewise, Susan Jane Buck Cox argues that the common land example used to argue this economic concept is on very weak historical ground, and misrepresents what she terms was actually the "triumph of the commons": the successful common usage of land for many centuries. She argues that social changes and agricultural innovation, and not the behaviour of the commoners, led to the demise of the commons.[5]

Some authors, like Yochai Benkler, say that with the rise of the Internet and digitalisation, an economics system based on commons becomes possible again. He wrote in his book The Wealth of Networks in 2006 that cheap computing power plus networks enable people to produce valuable products through non-commercial processes of interaction: "as human beings and as social beings, rather than as market actors through the price system". He uses the term 'networked information economy' to describe a "system of production, distribution, and consumption of information goods characterized by decentralized individual action carried out through widely distributed, nonmarket means that do not depend on market strategies."[60] He also coined the term 'commons-based peer production' to describe collaborative efforts based on sharing information.[61] Examples of commons-based peer production are free and open source software and open-source hardware.

Comedy of the Commons[edit]

In certain cases, exploiting a resource more may be a good thing. Carol M. Rose, in an 1986 article, discussed the concept of the "comedy of the commons", where the public property in question exhibits "increasing returns to scale" in usage (hence the phrase, "the more the merrier"), in that the more people use the resource, the higher the benefit to each one. Rose cites as examples commerce and group recreational activities. According to Rose, public resources with the "comedic" characteristic may suffer from under-investment rather than over usage.[62]

See also[edit]



  1. ^Lloyd, William Forster (1833). Two lectures on the checks to population. England: Oxford University. Retrieved 2016-03-13. 
  2. ^ abcHardin, G (1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons"(PDF). Science. 162 (3859): 1243–1248. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243. PMID 5699198. 
  3. ^Daly, Herman E.; Farley, Joshua (2011). Ecological Economics. Principles and Applications(PDF contains full textbook) (2nd ed.). Washington: Island Press. ISBN 9781597266819. 
  4. ^Management, National Research Council (U S. ) Panel on Common Property Resource (1986). "Proceedings of the Conference on Common Property Resource Management, April 21-26, 1985". National Academies. 
  5. ^ abSusan Jane Buck Cox - "No tragedy on the Commons" Journal of Environmental Ethics, Vol 7, Spring 1985 [1]
  6. ^Lloyd, William Forster (1833). Two Lectures on Population. JSTOR 1972412. 
  7. ^Abstract: "The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality".
  8. ^ abcHardin, G. (1968-12-13). "The Tragedy of the Commons"(PDF). Science. AAAS. 162 (3859): 1243–1248. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243. PMID 5699198. Retrieved 22 October 2013.  
  9. ^"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights". 10 December 1948. Retrieved 4 September 2011. 
  10. ^United Nations. Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs. Population Division (2004). Levels and trends of contraceptive use as assessed in 2002. United Nations Publications. p. 126. ISBN 92-1-151399-5.  
  11. ^Traditions and Trends in the Study of the Commons Frank van Laerhoven & Elinor Ostrom International Journal of the Commons Vol 1, no 1 October 2007, pp. 3-28
  12. ^"Will commons sense dawn again in time? | The Japan Times Online". 2006-07-26. Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  13. ^Hardin, Garrett (May 1, 1998). "Extensions of "The Tragedy of the Commons"". Science. 280 (5364): 682–683. doi:10.1126/science.280.5364.682. 
  14. ^"Brigham Daniels, Emerging Commons Tragic Institutions". Environmental Law. 37: 515–571 at 536. 2007. SSRN 1227745. 
  15. ^Samuel Bowles: Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution, Princeton University Press, pp. 27–29 (2004) ISBN 0-691-09163-3
  16. ^Kelly Andersson "Tragedy of the Common Forest" Oregon Daily Emerald
  17. ^Stephen J. Dunber and Steven D. Levitt "Not-So-Free-Ride" The New York Times
  18. ^Jaeger, William. Environmental Economics for Tree Huggers and Other Skeptics, p. 80 (Island Press 2012): "Economists often say that externalities need to be 'internalized,' meaning that some action needs to be taken to correct this kind of market failure."
  19. ^I.A. Shiklomanov, Appraisal and Assessment of World Water Resources, Water International 25(1): 11-32 (2000)
  20. ^* Wilson, E.O., 2002, The Future of Life, Vintage ISBN 0-679-76811-4
  21. ^Leakey, Richard and Roger Lewin, 1996, The Sixth Extinction : Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind, Anchor, ISBN 0-385-46809-1
  22. ^C.Michael Hogan. 2010. Overfishing. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and the Environment. eds. Sidney Draggan and C.Cleveland. Washington DC.
  23. ^ch 11–12. Mark Kurlansky, 1997. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, New York: Walker, ISBN 0-8027-1326-2.
  24. ^Glenn Black, Small Flock Poultry Farmers of Canada, 2016
  25. ^Prause, Christian (September 5, 2011). "Reputation-based self-management of software process artifact quality in consortium research projects". ACM. Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  26. ^Stephane Kasriel (2017-07-31). "Skill, re-skill and re-skill again. How to keep up with the future of work". World Economic Forum. 
  27. ^The tragedy of the commons, the public goods dilemma, and the meaning of rivalry and excludability in evolutionary biologyFrancisco Dionisio and Isabel Gordo Evolutionary Ecology Research 2006
  28. ^Sex, death and tragedyDaniel J. Rankin and Hanna Kokko Laboratory of Ecological and Evolutionary Dynamics May 2006
  29. ^Rankin, Daniel J. (2005). "Can adaptation lead to extinction?". Oikos. 111: 616–619. CiteSeerX doi:10.1111/j.1600-0706.2005.14541.x. 
  30. ^The tragedy of the commons in evolutionary biology Rankin, D.J., Bargum, K. & Kokko, H. (2007) Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22: 643–65
  31. ^[2] Ibrahim, Ahmed (2015): The tragedy of the commons and prisoner's dilemma may improve our realization of the theory of life and provide us with advanced therapeutic ways. figshare.
  32. ^Druzin, Bryan. "A Plan to strengthen the Paris Agreement". Fordham Law Review. 84: 19–20. 
  33. ^Kopelman, Weber, & Messick, 2002.
  34. ^Gelfand & Dyer, 2000
  35. ^Weber et al., 2004.
  36. ^Kopelman, 2009.
  37. ^Myers & Kopelman, 2012.
  38. ^Hardin, 1244
  39. ^van Vugt, M.; van Lange, P. A. M.; Meertens, R. M.; Joireman, J. A. (1996). "How a Structural Solution to a Real-World Social Dilemma Failed: A Field Experiment on the First Carpool Lane in Europe". Social Psychology Quarterly. 59 (4): 364–374. doi:10.2307/2787077. JSTOR 2787077. 
  40. ^"A Smiley Face Emoticon For Your Electric Bill | Unambiguously Ambidextrous". Archived from the original on 2011-08-31. Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  41. ^Axelrod, Robert (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02121-2. 
  42. ^Appell, G. N. (1993). Hardin's Myth of the Commons: The Tragedy of Conceptual Confusions. Working Paper 8. Phillips, ME: Social Transformation and Adaptation Research Institute.
  43. ^Ostrom, Elinor; Burger, Joanna; Field, Christopher B.; Norgaard, Richard B.; Policansky, David (1999). "Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges". Science. 284: 278–282. doi:10.1126/science.284.5412.278. PMID 10195886. 
  44. ^ ab"Ostrom 'revisits the commons' in 'Science'". Archived from the original on 2012-03-05. 
  45. ^ abElinor Ostrom: Beyond the tragedy of commons. Stockholm whiteboard seminars. (Video, 8:26 min.)
  46. ^Governing The Commons
  47. ^ abJohnson, Douglas L. (1993). "Nomadism and Desertification in Africa and the Middle East"(PDF). GeoJournal. 31 (1): 51–66. doi:10.1007/bf00815903. [dead link]
  48. ^Chatty, Dawn (2010). "The Bedouin in Contemporary Syria: The Persistence of Tribal Authority and Control". Middle East Journal. 64 (1): 29–69. doi:10.3751/64.1.12. 
  49. ^Smith, Robert J. (Fall 1981), Resolving the Tragedy of the Commons by Creating Private Property Rights in Wildlife(PDF), Cato Journal, 1 (2), Cato Institute, pp. 439–468 
  50. ^John Locke, "Sect. 27" and following sections in Second Treatise of Government (1690). Also available here.
  51. ^Jennifer Frakes, The Common Heritage of Mankind Principle and the Deep Seabed, Outer Space, and Antarctica: Will Developed and Developing Nations Reach a Compromise? Wisconsin International Law Journal. 2003; 21:409
  52. ^"Managing the Commons by Garrett Hardin and John Baden". Retrieved 22 October 2013.
Clearing rainforest for agriculture in southern Mexico.