Tragedy of the Commons
The concept of the Tragedy of the Commons is extremely
important for understanding the degradation of our environment. The concept
was clearly expressed for the first time by Garrett
Hardin in his now famous article in Science in
1968, which is "widely accepted as a fundamental contribution to
ecology, population theory, economics and political science." Hardin:
University of California Santa Barbara.
Garrett Hardin, the author of Tragedy of
the Commons, in 1963.
From The Garrett
The Basic Idea
If a resource is held in common for use by all, then ultimately
that resource will be destroyed. "Freedom in a common brings ruin
to all." To avoid the ultimate destruction, we must change our human
values and ideas of morality.
- "Held in common" means the resource is owned by no one,
or owned by a group, all of whom have access to the resource.
- "Ultimately" means after many years, maybe centuries.
The time interval is closely tied to population increase of those who
have access to the resource. The greater the number of people using
a resource, the faster it is destroyed. Thus the Tragedy of the Commons
is directly tied to over population.
- The resource must be available for use. Iron in earth's core is held
in common, but it is inaccessible, and it will not be destroyed.
- Resources held by individuals, even if the individual destroys the
resource, is not an example of the Tragedy of the Commons.
- Hardin used the word "tragedy"
as the philosopher Whitehead used it:
"The essence of dramatic tragedy is
not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working
of things." He [Whitehead] then goes on to say, "This inevitableness
of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents
which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the
futility of escape can be made evident in the drama."
Once the stage is set in a dramatic tragedy, there is no escape from
the unhappy ending.
- Note that the tragedy does not need to follow from greed. In the
example below, we all breath the air. This degrades the common resource:
air. But we breath not because we are greedy, but because we want to
live. Any sustained increase of population in a finite biosystem ends
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.
From A General Statement of
Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons by Herschel Elliott.
- We can avoid tragedy only by altering our values, by changing the
way we live. There is no technical solution.
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.
... Specifically, Hardin's thought experiment with an imaginary commons
demonstrates the futility -- the absurdity -- of much traditional
From A General Statement of
Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons by Herschel Elliott.
We will not delve further into the ethical implications. They are profound
and far reaching.
Garrett rephrased his idea in 1985:
As a result of discussions
carried out during the past decade I now suggest a better wording
of the central idea:
Under conditions of overpopulation, freedom in an unmanaged commons
brings ruin to all.
From Hardin (1985) An
Ecolate View of the Human Predicament.
Examples of Common Resources
- Air. No one owns the air, it is available for all to use, and its
unlimited use leads to air pollution.
- Water. Water in the seas, estuaries, and the ocean is a common resource.
But, water in lakes and rivers is often owned by cities, farmers, or
others, especially in the western US.
- Fish of the sea.
Hardin writes that In 1625, the Dutch scholar
Hugo Grotius said, "The extent of the ocean is in fact so great
that it suffices for any possible use on the part of all peoples for
drawing water, for fishing, for sailing." Now the once unlimited
resources of marine fishes have become scarce and nations are coming
to limit the freedom of their fishers in the commons. From here onward,
complete freedom leads to tragedy.
The concept that air, water, and fish are held in common
for use by all was first codified into law by the Romans. In 535 AD,
under the direction of Tribonian, the Corpus
Iurus Civilis [Body of Civil Law] was issued in three parts, in
Latin, at the order of the Emperor Justinian: the Codex Justinianus,
the Digest, or Pandects, and the Institutes.
The Codex Justinianus (issued in 529 AD) compiled
all of the extant (in Justinian's time) imperial constitutions from the
time of Hadrian. It used both the Codex Theodosianus and
private collections such as the Codex Gregorianus and Codex
Hermogenianus. From: The "Codex
Sourcebook: The Institutes, 535 CE. Here is the pertinent text:
Codex Justinianus (529) (Justinian Code),
Book II, Part III. The Division of Things:
1. By the law of nature these
things are common to mankind---the air, running water, the sea, and
consequently the shores of the sea. No one, therefore, is forbidden
to approach the seashore, provided that he respects habitationes, monuments,
and buildings which are not, like the sea, subject only to the law
2. All rivers and ports are public;
hence the right of fishing in a port, or in rivers, is common to all
3. The seashore extends as far
as the greatest winter flood runs up. ...
5. The public use of the seashore,
too, is part of the law of nations, as is that of the sea itself; and,
therefore, any person is at liberty to place on it a cottage, to which
he may retreat, or to dry his nets there, and haul them from the sea;
for the shores may be said to be the property of no man, but are subject
to the same law as the sea itself, and the sand or ground beneath it.
12. Wild beasts, birds, fish
and all animals, which live either in the sea, the air, or the earth,
so soon as they are taken by anyone, immediately become by the law
of nations the property of the captor; for natural reason gives to
the first occupant that which had no previous owner. And it is immaterial
whether a man takes wild beasts or birds upon his own ground, or on
that of another. Of course any one who enters the ground of another
for the sake of hunting or fowling, may be prohibited by the proprietor,
if he perceives his intention of entering.
From: The "Codex
Sourcebook: The Institutes, 535 CE.
A General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons
The philosopher Herschel Elliott states that there are four general
premises that entail the tragedy of the commons:
- 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.
- 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.
- Now for the first time on global scale human beings are exceeding
the land and resource use which the Earth's biosystem can sustain.
- 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.
From A General
Statement of Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons by Herschel Elliott.
The large and rapid increase in population since the
beginning of the anthropocene has altered the global commons. Will our
atmosphere, rivers, lands, and ocean ultimately be destroyed because
they are held in common for use by all? Will we place ever stronger restrictions
on their use? Or will we limit the population of the world?
Its message is, I think, still true today. Individualism
is cherished because it produces freedom, but the gift is conditional:
The more the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment,
the more freedoms must be given up. As cities grow, the freedom to
park is restricted by the number of parking meters or fee-charging
garages. Traffic is rigidly controlled. On the global scale, nations
are abandoning not only the freedom of the seas, but the freedom of
the atmosphere, which acts as a common sink for aerial garbage. Yet
to come are many other restrictions as the world's population continues
– Hardin (1998): Extensions of "The Tragedy of the Commons."
Jared Diamond in his book Collapse describes
in detail the collapse of civilizations that failed to solve the problem
of the Tragedy of the Commons. He writes of Pitcairn and Henderson Islands
in the Pacific (page 120):
Many centuries ago, immigrants came to a fertile
land blessed with apparently inexhaustible resources. While the land
lacked a few raw materials useful for industry, those materials were
readily obtained by overseas trade with poorer lands that happened
to have deposits of them. For a time, all the lands prospered, and
their populations multiplied.
But the population of that rich land eventually
multiplied beyond the numbers that even its abundant resources could
support. As its forests were felled and its soils eroded, its agricultural
productivity was no longer sufficient to generate export surpluses,
build ships, or even to nourish its own population. With that decline
of trade, shortages of the imported raw materials developed. Civil
war spread, as established political institutions were overthrown by
a kaleidoscopically changing succession of local military leaders.
The starving populace of the rich land survived by turning to cannibalism.
Their former overseas trade partners met an even worse fate: deprived
of the imports on which they had depended, they in turn ravaged their
own environment until no one was left alive.
Tragedy is not inevitable. Jared Diamond described how
some societies avoided tragedy, at least locally. The people of Tikopia,
Japan, and the New Guinea highlands saved their forests and the agrarian
economy which depended on forests. All limited their population to what
could be sustained by their economy.
There Is No Technical Solution
Hardin points out that the Tragedy of the Commons is an example of the
class of problems with no technical solution, where:
A technical solution may be
defined as one that requires 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.
We Must Change Our Values: Mutual Coercion
Therefore, any solution requires that we, as a society, change our values
of morality. For example, we may decide that unlimited use of air is
no longer morally acceptable. Hardin states one solution is "Mutual
Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon." We, as a society, agree
that some actions are not allowed (the mutual agreement), and that
violations of the agreement leads to fines or prison terms (the Coercion).
Thus, we have some restrictions on what can be put into the air. The
US Environmental Protection Agency regulates the amount of pollutants
that can be released into the air. Failure to comply with the regulations
leads to fines or prison sentences.
Hawaiian Islanders protected
their environment and fisheries for a thousand years by a unique system
of local ownership extending from the sea to the headwaters of streams
feeding into the sea. Violations of the rules (taboos) could lead to
the death penalty. This was "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon" in
Hawai'ian islanders punishing a guilty person. Lithograph by Langlame:
Maniere de punir de mort un coupable aux iles Sandwich. Published
in the book by Jacques Etienne Victor Arago, Promenade
autour du monde (pendant les annees de 1817, 1818, 1819 et 1820,
sur les corvettes du Roi l'Uranie et la Physicienne, commandees par
Prints Hampton, UK.
More General Solutions
In addition, morals or ethics can lead to changes in use of the resource.
How can this be done? Ostrom
et al (1999) provide a possible answer.
"Solving [commons] problems
involves two distinct elements:
- Restricting access, and
- Creating incentives (usually by assigning individual
rights to, or shares of, the resource) for users to invest in the
resource instead of overexploiting it.
Both changes are needed. For example, access
to the north Pacific halibut fishery was not restricted before the
recent introduction of individual transferable quotas and catch limits
protected the resource for decades. But the enormous competition
to catch a large share of the resource before others did resulted
in economic waste, danger to the fishers, and reduced quality of
fish to consumers. Limiting access alone can fail if the resource
users compete for shares, and the resource can become depleted unless
incentives or regulations prevent overexploitation."
From Ostrom et al (1999), "Revisiting
the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges."
Restricting access ultimately involves limiting population, especially
when the common being accesses is a global system.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to fail or Succeed,
Hardin, Garret. (1969) "The
Tragedy of the Commons." Science.
Hardin, G. (1998). "ESSAYS
ON SCIENCE AND SOCIETY: Extensions of "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 280
Ostrom, E., J. Burger, et al. (1999). Revisiting
the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges. Science 284
A Slovenian translation of this chapter by Gasper Halipovich is available through NextRanks.
15 January, 2013