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The Tragedy of the Commons



The “tragedy of the commons” is the name the biologist Garrett Hardin gave to a thought experiment in a now famous 1968 Science article. It predicted global resource degradation and societal ruin from the net consequences of individuals acting in their short-term interests but at a long-term cost to the environment. This chapter will outline the history of the concept and, after presenting some compelling critiques of it, demonstrate its continuing utility in helping us understand environmental problems.
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List of contributors
Introduction: environmental studies past, present and future
Noel Castree, Mike Hulme and James D. Proctor
Part 1 Classic concepts
Editorial introduction
1.1 Adaptation
Marcus Taylor
1.2 Bioregionalism
Richard Evanoff
1.3 Conservation
Chris Sandbrook
1.4 Desertification
Diana K. Davis
1.5 Environment
Sverker Sörlin
1.6 Ecosystems
Erle C. Ellis
1.7 Environmental catastrophe
Giovanni Bettini
1.8 Ecological footprint
William Rees
1.9 The environmental Kuznets curve
David I. Stern
1.10 Gaia
Karen Litfin
1.11 The Jevons Paradox
John M. Polimeni and Raluca I. Iorgulescu
1.12 Nature
R. Bruce Hull
1.13 One world
Volker M. Welter
1.14 Overpopulation
Eric D. Carter
1.15 Precaution
Tim O'Riordan and Rupert Read
1.16 Risk
Susan L. Cutter
1.17 Resilience
Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper
1.18 The resource curse
Michael J. Watts
1.19 Scarcity and environmental limits
Sara Nelson
1.20 Stewardship
Willis Jenkins
1.21 Sustainable development
Mark Whitehead
1.22 The tragedy of the commons
Kevin Ells
1.23 Uncertainty
Andy Stirling
1.22 The tragedy of the commons
Kevin Ells
The “tragedy of the commons” is the name the biologist Garrett Hardin gave to a thought
experiment in a now famous 1968 Science article. It predicted global resource
degradation and societal ruin from the net consequences of individuals acting in their
short-term interests but at a long-term cost to the environment. This chapter will outline
the history of the concept and, after presenting some compelling critiques of it,
demonstrate its continuing utility in helping us understand environmental problems.
Hardin’s principal source was an 1832 Oxford lecture W. F. Lloyd published in rebuttal
to Thomas Malthus’s influential analysis (in six editions from 1798 to 1830) of
unsustainable countervailing growth trends in human population versus agricultural
resources. Malthus predicted famine and accelerated death rates in England once
geometric growth in human population outpaced linear arithmetic growth in the food
Lloyd argued rational self-interest would undermine Malthus’s appeal to “moral
restraint” in procreation with reference to the degraded state of England’s common
grazing areas. Herdsmen each add cattle to a common area because the long-term loss in
food supply is shared by all herdsmen, with only a small net loss for each. By analogy,
Malthus’s solutions to limit human population growth, voluntary delayed marriage and
sexual abstinence, would fail, and the common labor market was doomed to overstocking
to the point of saturation.
Hardin reiterated Lloyd’s hypothetical example in a thought experiment intended to
demonstrate that global overpopulation would lead to the collapse of Earth’s carrying
Picture a pasture open to all. . . . Explicitly or implicitly, . . . [each herdsman] asks, “What is
the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” . . . Since [he] receives all the
proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1. . . . Since,
however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all. . ., the negative utility for any particular
decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of 1. . . . [T]he only sensible course . . . is to add
another animal to his herd. . . . Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that
compels him to increase his herd without limitin 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 substituted Malthus’s voluntary moral restraint with mandatory restraint by the
state, “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” Malthus was of course wrong that the
population of England would exhaust its food supply (as the global population has not
worldwide), but reiterations of his thesis appeared in later social Darwinist writing, and
persisted even after the Third Reich tamped down public support for eugenics. For
example, American ornithologist William Vogt and sociologist (and eugenicist) Elmer
Pendell warned in their 1948 books against incompatible trends in human fertility and
environmental sustainability, publishing detailed updates in 1960.
Hardin’s article appeared during a high watermark in public fear of overpopulation.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, biologist Paul Ehrlich’s The Population
Bomb (also 1968) and The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) sold millions of
copies, and Soylent Green, a science fiction film depicting a diabolical solution to
preventing famine in an overpopulated future society, was a box-office hit in 1973.
Criticism of Hardin’s thesis appeared as early as readers’ letters in a 1968 issue
of Science. They offered alternative solutions (contraception, agronomics), or found
Hardin’s appeal to the social good contradicted his assertion that people are motivated
only by economic self-interest. David Harvey demonstrated that curbing population
growth presumes our cultural perspectives on nature, social organization of scarcity, and
attitude toward material goods are fixed and immutable (1974, pp. 272– 273). Thousands
of people have since proven complex problems have multiple points of engagement by
agreeing to buy environmentally neutral or beneficial products, organizing to manage
commons areas, and so on.
Certainly, if profits are distributed privately, but the costs of resource loss or toxic
waste are disbursed among millions of taxpayers, corporate or state entities may find
themselves caught up in a system wherein they must pollute. So the “tragedy of the
commons” fable clarifies the need for legislative intervention to manage or preserve a
wide range of areas or resources analogous to a public common.
However, in a post-agrarian society, we cannot logically conflate this narrative with
the decision of parents to bear children. The herdsman adds cattle to the commons
as capital. Parents’ income from children, if any, does not recapitulate, let alone exceed,
the costs incurred in raising them. Even considering the intangible rewards of
childrearing, doubling household population does not double the love within it, nor do
three children in addition to the first quadruple security in old age. Ironically, Hardin’s
fable remains directly relevant to virtually every environmental
issue except overpopulation.
Hardin did concede thirty years after publishing “The tragedy of the commons” that he
should have specified he was writing about “an unmanaged commons” (1998, p. 682), a
crucial distinction, as it leaves open the political choice of management scheme (from
enforced decree through free market incentives), as well as widely varying responses to
local conditions.
Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues refer instead to “the drama of the commons” (2002).
Ostrom’s extensive research program has documented numerous case studies of local
resource commons use ending not in tragedy (though some do) but in perpetual
sustainability for the benefit of the communities that manage them.
Social commentator Friedrich Engels optimistically argued in 1844 that science would
discover a solution to Malthus’s conundrum (the 1950s Green Revolution in high-yield
agricultural productivity is the most prominent confirmation of this prediction). But
Engels deemed Malthus’s work of great use in posing the problem so clearly. In a sense,
the present chapter takes the same stance toward Hardin’s rhetorical argument.
Multiple case studies in the half century since Hardin raised his alarm have disproven
his claim that the fate of a resource commons is inexorably tragic. Some have suggested
retiring the concept for good (“Malthusianism” and “The tragedy of the commons”
appear in the anthology This Idea Must Die, 175 short essays answering the question
“What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”).
Yet the structure of Hardin’s argument retains its utility for environmental rhetoric and
advocacy. It is a vicarious narrative in which readers can imagine themselves in the place
of the fictional herdsman, subject to his economic temptation to overuse a community
resource. Even those who hope they would find workable alternatives can easily infer that
numerous neighbors might not.
Hardin’s thought experiment proves an implied two-part deductive argument. First,
1. In reading about someone doing X, you can imagine yourself doing X
2. If you can imagine yourself doing X, you can imagine anyone doing X
3. You can therefore imagine everyone doing X.
This X is an individual act, relatively harmless in itself to the system in which one is
embedded, which would destroy the whole if everyone else did it, too. Here is the second
1. Everyone doing X will bring about Y
2. You can imagine everyone doing X (proven in part one)
3. Y will happen.
Hardin’s vicarious narrative is not a story narrated in the second person, but a
hypothetical example he invites the reader to interpret vicariously (“Picture a pasture
open to all”). Rather than depicting a horrifying future that might occur “if this goes on,”
Hardin makes a future that logically must occur a new aspect of the reader’s sense of the
present. His rhetorical accomplishment is that an audience for his story believes its global
implications must occur precisely because they attended to the story and understood it.
“The tragedy of the commons” remains a compelling rhetorical trope, since it applies
with full logical force to multiple environmental issues such as overfishing, deforestation,
watershed pollution, and soil erosion. Writers and advocates may still use the structure of
Hardin’s argument to demonstrate the danger of relaxing regulations that manage any
natural resource commons, or persuade people to see themselves as influential agents in
systems in which they are embedded. This ready applicability could account for the
persistent popularity of Hardin’s article even for readers opposed politically or ethically
to Hardin’s prescriptions for curbing human population, or for whom global
overpopulation has cooled as a front-burner environmental concern.
When Erlich’s dire scenarios did not materialize, his bestseller passed into obscurity.
Hardin remains relevant because the structure of his thought experiment still cogently
expresses the potential intractability of many environmental problems. One may
plausibly assert that Hardin takes a narrow view of human nature, or call his herdsman
the product of a particular, perhaps peculiar, culture. But those engaged in environmental
journalism or education may set aside Hardin the policy analyst while imitating Hardin
the rhetorician, as have readers familiar only with excerpts of his article. One need not
throw out the persuasive baby with the political bath water.
Learning resources
Here is a compelling and detailed interactive map of twenty-first-century population
projections (net births, life expectancy, income, and more) by region:
A generally balanced 10-minute survey of population concerns and misconceptions,
using the UK as a case study applicable in varying degrees to overcrowded or sparsely
populated areas:
A study in contrasts – two thoroughly cited and richly-linked articles on opposite ends of
the current spectrum of concern about human population growth:
Brockman, J. (2015) This idea must die: Scientific theories that are blocking progress.
New York: Harper Perennial.
Dietz, T., Dolšak, N., Ostrom, E. & Stern, P. C. (2002) The drama of the commons. In
Ostrom, E., Dietz, T., Dolšak, N., Stern, P.C., Stonich, S. and Weber, E.U. (Eds) The
drama of the commons (pp. 3–36). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Ehrlich, P. (1968) The population bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.
Engels, F. (2010) Outlines of a critique of political economy. In Marx and Engels:
Collected works, volume 3. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Hardin, G. (1968) The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162: 1243–1248.
Hardin, G. (1998) Extensions of ‘The tragedy of the commons’. Science, 280, 682.
Harvey, D. (1974) Population, resources, and the ideology of science. Economic
Geography, 50(3), 256–277.
Lloyd, W.F. (1980) W.F. Lloyd on the checks to population. Population and
Development Review, 6: 473–496 .
Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J. & Behrens III, W.W. (1972) The limits to
growth: a report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New
York: New American Library.
Ostrom, E., Dietz, T., Dolšak, N., Stern, P.C., Stonich, S. and Weber, E.U. (Eds)
(2002) The drama of the commons. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
It would be convenient indeed if such a contentious issue as the relationship between population and resources could be discussed in some ethically neutral manner. In recent years scientific investigations into this relationship have multiplied greatly in number and sophistication. But the plethora of scientific investigation has not reduced contentiousness; rather, it has increased it. We can venture three possible explanations for this state of affairs: (1) science is not ethically neutral; (2) there are serious defects in the scientific methods used to consider the population-resources problem; or (3) some people are irrational and fail to understand and accept scientifically established results. All of these explanations may turn out to be true, but we can afford to proffer none of them without substantial qualification. The last explanation would require, for example, a careful analysis of the concept of rationality before it could be sustained (Godelier, 1972). The second explanation would require a careful investigation of the capacities and limitations of a whole battery of scientific methods, techniques, and tools, together with careful evaluation of available data, before it could be judged correct or incorrect. In this paper, however, I shall focus on the first explanation and seek to show that the lack of ethical neutrality in science affects each and every attempt at ‘rational’ scientific discussion of the population-resources relationship. I shall further endeavor to show how the adoption of certain kinds of scientific methods inevitably leads to certain kinds of substantive conclusions which, in turn, can have profound political implications.
"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. "I did not start out intending to forge an interdisciplinary link, but rather to present a retiring president's address to the Pacific division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But even after six revisions, each quite different from the one before, my summary of an ecologist's view of the human overpopulation problem would not crystallize. Repeatedly, I found fault with my own conclusions."
"Technology is not the answer to the population problem. Rather, what is needed is 'mutual coercion mutually agreed upon'--everyone voluntarily giving up the freedom to breed without limit. If we all have an equal right to many 'commons' provided by nature and by the activities of modern governments, then by breeding freely we behave as do herders sharing a common pasture. Each herder acts rationally by adding yet one more beast to his/her herd, because each gains all the profit from that addition, while bearing only a fraction of its costs in overgrazing, which are shared by all the users. The logic of the system compels all herders to increase their herds without limit, with the 'tragic,' i.e. 'inevitable,' 'inescapable' result: ruin the commons. Appealing to individual conscience to exercise restraint in the use of social-welfare or natural commons is likewise self-defeating: the conscientious will restrict use (reproduction), the heedless will continue using (reproducing), and gradually but inevitably the selfish will out-compete the responsible. Temperance can be best accomplished through administrative law, and a 'great to invent the corrective keep custodians honest.'"
This idea must die: Scientific theories that are blocking progress
  • J Brockman
Brockman, J. (2015) This idea must die: Scientific theories that are blocking progress. New York: Harper Perennial.
Extensions of 'The tragedy of the commons'. Science, 280, 682. Harvey, D. (1974) Population, resources, and the ideology of science
  • G Hardin
Hardin, G. (1998) Extensions of 'The tragedy of the commons'. Science, 280, 682. Harvey, D. (1974) Population, resources, and the ideology of science. Economic Geography, 50(3), 256-277.