The Tragedy of the Commons

In my opinion, The Tragedy of the Commons is a truly profound concept.

The tragedy of the commons is what happens when you have a “Commons” shared by a number of competing people or groups.  The defining example of the commons is the pastures which used to to be shared by a number of farmers in Britain and America.

In the communal use of these pastures, things go well as long as everyone uses only the share of the commons allotted to him.   However, everything goes downhill very rapidly as soon as one person decides that he wants to take more than his share, or even worse all that he can grab as fast as he can.  In this case the commons is soon destroyed for everyone.  Everyone, including the guy who wanted more than his share, is ruined.

This scenario has happened over and over again in human societies.  The classic example is the North Atlantic Fisheries off  Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada.

The North Atlantic fishery was once a tremendously fertile and lush environment.  Many fishermen shared it and since it was so huge and so prolific, it was never emptied of fish.  And then in the 1960’s a lot of new technology like depth sounders and huge factory trawlers were invented and fish catches went up astronomically.  The result was that fish populations crashed so hard that they fell almost to zero.  And it looks as if they are not ever coming back again.  Often a very severe crash that reduces population numbers drastically results in the complete extinction of the species.  And this is what is most likely happening to the Atlantic Cod right now.

In my opinion the kind of cooperation that keeps the Tragedy of the Commons from happening is the essence of human civilization.

In the best civilizations humans cooperate in many things.   And as a result, everyone gets richer and more prosperous.  International trade is a good example.  Theoretically trade is usually  the kind of a transaction where both sides can win; that’s why people engage in trade in the first place.  People or nations often trade with each other when one side is very good at something.  They have the right climate or the right raw materials or some other advantage.    So they trade this item to another country who is good at producing something else that the first country is not good at producing.  Both sides end up with more of both products that they had to began with.  Both sides are more prosperous.  An economist named David Ricardo thought up this theory back in the early 19th century.   He called it the theory of comparative advantage.  And things often do work out this way in the real world.  Cooperation often turns out to be a win-win way of doing things.

With globalization this idea got a little out of whack and sometimes trade generated losers as well as winners.  In the globalization years, the biggest losers turned out to be the working classes in first world cultures whose incomes totally stopped growing (when inflation is not considered) between the early 1970s and now.  And ignoring the losers of globalism has turned out to be disastrous for the continuing prosperity of the West.  More on this in future articles.

However, often times international trade law ensures that most of the time trade is  reciprocal and fair and to the advantage of everyone.  This, along with technological innovation is one of the reasons the West is such a rich and prosperous place.  Or at least this used to be true.

Now-a-days prosperity isn’t so much a given in the West since periodically, some nations and classes decide that they want everything, the tragedy of the commons happens and then everyone loses.   Unfortunately there is a lot of that going on right now.

Donald Trump is the star of his own little Tragedy of the Commons play.   His theory of best behavior is to use force to take everything you can get as fast as you can get it.  This appears to be his personal motto as well as his take on international relations and international trade.  According to him there is no such thing as win-win, every interaction has to be win-lose.  For every winner there has to be a loser.   Unfortunately, this philosophy is bound to create losses for everyone including America.

The philosophy of selfishness and greed first is unfortunately also Mr Trump’s approach to environmentalism.   He doesn’t understand that the earth’s environment is a giant commons in which cheaters ruin things for everyone including themselves.

And to a certain degree, this is also true of capitalism itself.  The first law of capitalism is that economic growth must go on forever or the whole system will crash.  We call such crashes depressions.

Capitalism insists on infinite growth.  Unfortunately this doesn’t work well in the finite world.   The earth does not have infinite supples of clean air and clean water and fertile soil. If you extract too much from the earth it collapses.  And unfortunately we appear to have reached this point.  Ecosystems are collapsing almost daily and tens of thousands of species are going extinct.  And I’m afraid that if we continue in this mode, homo sapiens will be included in this emerging disaster.  And I’m not the only one who fears this by a long ways.

Clean water, clear air, and all the plants and animals of the earth are a gigantic commons which are free for everyone to use so long as they don’t destroy more than their share.

Unfortunately, Trump is not the only one who has been using more than his share; all of us humans have been doing this for a long, long time.  It is only recently that the human species realized that we cannot go on raping and pillaging the earth forever.

50,000 years ago humans left their ancestral home in Africa and migrated first to Europe and then all over the world.  When each new destination was reached, we super-intelligent humans destroyed and ate all the large animals in the local environment until everything edible was dead and eaten and then we moved on to the next Eden.  This is what happened to all kinds of animals like Puffins, Dodos, Bison, homing pigeons and all the rest of the animals that used to cover the earth in great adundance.  We humans killed them all.

All of these species and many more are all gone now.  And now, with our pesticides and fertilizers and rapidly increasing global warming, we are rapidly killing what is left without even knowing it.  Already we have slaughtered many species right down to most of the insects and even to many of the bacteria that our own lives depend upon.

Perhaps you may have noticed your windshield never gets covered with a gooey mass of dead bugs the way it used to only  ten years ago or so.  There is a reason for that.  Basically a huge number of insects which once called earth home are now extinct.

Scientists say that species are now undergoing extinction at the rate of at least 100 species per day.  Extinction rates are now someplace between 10,000 and 100,000 times the normal base rate.

Scientists say we are now in the middle of the Sixth Mass Extinction.  There have been five previous mass extinctions in the history of the earth.  And most of them happened as a direct result of global warming that happened due to huge volcanic eruptions which filled the air with CO2.  And now it is humans who are filling our atmosphere with CO2.

So, it is partially our ongoing failure to realize that the tragedy of the commons has often ended the prosperity of everyone that has led us into our present quandary.


Below is an article about The Tragedy of the Commons.

This article is from the syllabus of a geography course given in the fall 2018 semester by the Department of Geography at Penn State.  This article is one lecture in a semester long course on Environment and Society in a Changing World. 

I thought this was a pretty good article so I included the whole thing.  Thank you Penn State for making such a great article public.

In my opinion, understanding the tragedy of the commons is an important step in understanding the mess we find ourselves in today.


Course syllabus for Geography 30n, lecture on Tragedy of the Commons,
Penn State University

Have you ever been to Boston, Massachusetts? Did you visit the Boston Common?

Today, the Boston Common is a public park in downtown Boston. It is used in the same ways as any other city park: for leisurely walks, for sports, and for community events.

But the Common was not always used in this way. In the 1600s, long before Boston was a big city, the space was used as a grazing pasture for cows. The cows were owned by families who lived in the area.

The cow grazing caused a collective action problem. Each individual family wanted their cows to eat as much grass from the Common as they could because then the cows would grow more and be worth more to the family. However, the Common had a finite amount of grass that could be eaten at any one time. Soon the cows were eating the grass faster than the grass could regrow. At this point, the grazing became unsustainable, and it was only a matter of time before the Common ran out of grass, forcing families to cease grazing their cows. This end to the grazing is the “tragedy” in the tragedy of the commons. It is an avoidable tragedy: if the families had only exercised moderation and restraint in their grazing practices, then the grass would not have been depleted, and the cows could have continued grazing indefinitely.

Defining the Tragedy of the Commons

The term “tragedy of the commons” was coined by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 article published in the journal Science, titled “The Tragedy of the Commons. The idea behind this term refers to the depletion, and ultimately the collapse of a common but limited resource when individuals act selfishly to maximize personal gains. The tragedy of commons term is also closed related to some of the concepts we have covered in previous modules, such as carrying capacity, resilience, and sustainable development.

What happened in the Boston Common is one example of the tragedy of the commons. Another important example of the tragedy of the commons is overfishing. Fish can be found in lakes, oceans, rivers, and streams, which are typically not owned by any one person. Anyone can fish in these places, so the places are “common.” But there is never an infinite supply of fish. Each individual Fisher may want to catch as many fish as he or she can, but if everyone does this, then the supply of fish will be depleted. The depletion is the “tragedy,” and it is unsustainable. Eventually, there will be no more fish, and no one will be able to fish anymore. On the other hand, if everyone exercises restraint and doesn’t remove too many fish, then the fish will be able to reproduce, the supply of fish will not become depleted, and fishing can persist indefinitely

Overfishing is a major global issue. Many fish populations have become severely depleted due to overfishing. One example is the population of cod off the Atlantic coast of the United States and Canada.

Case Study: Atlantic Cod

Atlantic Cod

Between the mid-1970s and early 1990s, a series of poor management decisions and inadequate understanding of complex marine ecosystems led to the collapse of the cod fishery, devastation of livelihoods, a flux of environmental refugees, and long-term impacts on the northwest Atlantic ecosystem off the coast of the northern United States and Canada.

The smaller increase in landings beginning around 1978 follows the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO)’s new program to manage fisheries by adopting fish capture quotas and determined minimum mesh sizes. Notice how both attempts to increase landings were short-lived, and today landings are as low as they’ve ever been.

Individual action can help avoid overfishing. For example, you as a consumer can choose to not eat fish whose populations are threatened. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California maintains a Seafood Watch program which explains which fish populations are threatened and which are not. The program makes simple guides for each region of the country, available online. (Ask yourself this question: Why does the Seafood Watch program produce different guides for different regions of the country?)

Overfishing can result in permanent collapses in fish supplies. If a population of fish gets completely wiped out, then it cannot reproduce and regrow its numbers, even if people stop fishing entirely. In other words, the collapse can be irreversible. Irreversible collapses can be found in other instances of the tragedy of the commons, including biodiversity loss and certain ecological disruptions. But not all instances of the tragedy of the commons are irreversible. For example, overgrazing in Boston Common causes only a temporary loss of grass, since people can always grow more grass there.

A Second Look at The Tragedy of the Commons

As with the neomalthusian IPAT argument, there are many critiques of Hardin’s view of the inevitable depletion of common resources. The first question you should ask when considering a scenario involving the human use of a common resource is: what is really driving resource depletion? Hardin argues that it is individual selfishness. But take a second look at the Atlantic cod example. It is true that the fishery was massively overfished, leading to a significant collapse of the cod population. But was the overfishing really driven by the individual actions of private fishermen, or was it global market forces, large corporate interests, and lax environmental regulations? Remember, the fishermen that were bringing in cod in the North Atlantic were not families fishing for subsistence like those keeping a few cattle on the Boston Common. Nor are they small-scale fishermen. Commercial fishing like that of the North Atlantic cod is a highly capital intensive enterprise that involves large boats, significant resources for the time at sea, and corporate contracts. So is this resource degradation a tragedy of the commons, or an inherent problem of capitalism? If you read Hardin’s article in Science, you will notice that he is essentially arguing for the closing of common resources in favor of private holdings, which is also a hallmark of capitalist market economics. This is not to say that capitalism is evil, just that like any other economic system, it is not perfect. And looking past the individual fishermen toward larger economic forces is a classic example of using scale in a geographic inquiry. Was it the fishermen living and working in the North Atlantic that depleted the fishery, or was it economic processes operating over much larger scales? Or was it some of both?

The second thing to keep in mind when considering the tragedy of the commons is that it has been shown more often than not to be the same sort of doomsaying that we encountered with the IPAT predictions of future human tragedy. It is true that groups of humans do sometimes overuse and exhaust natural resources that could be renewable. But at least as frequently, we see examples of effective resource governance and stewardship (which we will read more about in the next section). This often happens with common resources on smaller scales, such as community forests, but the successes are too numerous to ignore. So when seeing something that looks like a tragedy of the commons – like global climate change – perhaps it is not just a problem of individual selfishness. Perhaps an equally significant problem is that the existing systems of governance are not matched to the scale of the problem and are therefore not able to effectively foster collective action.


The picture at the top of this page is Molas Lake
in the Colorado Rockies near Durango.



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