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.
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"
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
- 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 tragedy.
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 ethical thinking.
From A General Statement of Hardin's
Tragedy of the Commons by Herschel
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
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
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 of nations.
2. All rivers and
ports are public; hence the right of fishing in a port, or
in rivers, is common to all men.
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. ...
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
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
- 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
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
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 to grow.
– 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
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
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 M. Freycinet.
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
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