Appropedia needs your support - Please Donate Today
Tragedy of the commons
The Tragedy of the Commons is an article from 1968, whose title has entered the English language, to describe the mismanagement of a common resource when individuals do not significantly feel the consequences of their own actions in over-exploiting or damaging the resource. Hardin's summary is that "The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality." It was embraced as a principle by the emerging environmental movement.
The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a scenario in which commonly held land is inevitably degraded because everyone in a community is allowed to graze livestock there. Multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.
Garrett Hardin himself later revised his own view, noting that what he described was actually the "Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons."[verification needed]
There are cases where the "tragedy of the commons" is relatively uncontroversial, and many people from libertarians to socialists would recognize these as tragic mismanagement.
One poignant example of this tragedy today is the unsustainable consumption levels of harvests from the oceans’ fisheries. The Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) estimates 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. And previous FAO reports from the late 1990s indicated that sixty percent of the world’s important fish stocks are “in urgent need of management.” Similarly, FAO’s 2008 State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture report describes, among other things, that 80% of the world’s oceans are fully exploited or overexploited (Part 1, p34). The status of Mediterranean fisheries is in a similar plight, with Bluefin Tuna stocks dropping by almost half over 8 years.
Is illegal logging a valid example?[Suggested project] It is no secret that deforesting is still a drastic problem, particular in the world’s rain forests. When there is a lack of enforcement of regulations or of property rights in forests in Indonesia and Brazil, the same perverse incentive structure exists as in the fishing industry, and it is extremely profitable to carry out illegal logging at the expense of the forest and local communities.
In the Mediterranean, people hunt, trap, and eat tens of millions of bird migrants each year in Cyprus, Malta, and elsewhere, contributing to massive declines in a wide range of species that breed in Europe.
The numbers are staggering. Some declines of biodiversity will directly (and adversely) affect food availability for mankind’s bursting multitudes, while others will affect us more indirectly – and all will reduce the diversity of life on earth and it’s ecological equilibria. And humanity bears the weight of the responsibility, yet for each individual the incentive is to act irresponsibly.
Hardin also emphasized how the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. There are many pollutants that cause problems in the 21st-century environment, but regulation has reigned in many different forms of pollution with varying degrees of success. One remaining problem is that of the floating  garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.
CO2 is another problem that remains unsolved. There are enormous difficulties in  reducing carbon emissions; too many people deny that the problem exists, and too few people are willing to assume significant leadership roles in fixing it.
History: Warnings about the commons
- Please help by expanding these arguments or finding more context in the original writings that are quoted here.
(Note that these arguments may not be against all applications of the "commons".)
- Aristotle wrote that "that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it... everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few."
- Thucydides noted that when each person thinks that "it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him" then "the common cause imperceptibly decays."
- Ludwig von Mises described the same concept in 1940 and 1948. For example: "If land is not owned by anybody... it is utilized without any regard to the disadvantages resulting. Those who are in a position to appropriate to themselves the returns—lumber and game of the forests, fish of the water areas, and mineral deposits of the subsoil—do not bother about the later effects of their mode of exploitation."
Over many decades Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom has documented how various communities manage common resources – grazing lands, forests, irrigation waters, fisheries — equitably and sustainably over the long term. The Nobel Committee’s recognition of her work and its value for understanding economics is a challenge to the competing popular, simplistic understandings of the tragedy of the commons, which hold that the only effective method to prevent finite resources from being ruined or depleted is, in one view, government regulation or, in another view, division of the resources into private property.
The work of Ostrom and fellow Laureate Oliver E. Williamson found that people in business adopt numerous forms of regulation and rules of behavior, or “governance” in economic jargon, and that they do so independent of government and without being told to do so by their bosses.
“When local users of a forest have a long-term perspective, they are more likely to monitor each other’s use of the land, developing rules for behavior,” says Ostrom “It is an area that standard market theory does not touch.”
Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz, also winner of a Nobel prize, comments, "Conservatives used the Tragedy of the Commons to argue for property rights, and efficiency was achieved as people were thrown off the commons. What Ostrom has demonstrated is the existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of the commons without having to resort to property rights."
The Nobel Prize committee specifically noted, "Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized."
Elinor Ostrom also helped found the International Association for the Study of the Commons, also based at Indiana University. Her works shows that our social, environmental and personal advancement depends on the vitality of the commons as well as the market in our lives.
A General Theory for Analyzing Sustainability of Socio-Ecological Systems by Elinor Ostrom offers a model for these complex interactions.
Tragedy of the anticommons
The "tragedy of the anticommons" is a phrase coined by Michael HellerW to describe a kind of coordination breakdown. In this scenario, the existence of numerous rights holders frustrates achieving a socially desirable outcome.
Examples of sustainable commons
A classic example is the acequias, a centuries-old tradition of cooperative irrigation systems in New Mexico and Colorado where the small flow of water available for agriculture is allocated by the community as a whole through a democratic process.
Question: Is subakW (traditional control of access to irrigation water by Balinese water temples) an example of commons management?[Suggested project] Note that when an attempt was made to shift to modern methods during the green revolution, serious problems were encountered (e.g. with pests) and subak was reestablished.
Shades of grey
When noting conservative or libertarian critiques of the commons, it's important to note that these may be quite subtle, rather than the simplistic anti-commons arguments that are often attributed to Hardin (probably unfairly). For example:
- The libertarian think tank, the Mises Institute, uses a Creative Commons open license, thus contributing to the knowledge commons at the same time that they argue strongly against socialism and socialist applications of the commons.
- Original article: The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin, 25 June 1968.
- Aristotle wrote "That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Aristotle, Politics, 1262a30-37)
- Thucydides wrote: [T]hey devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays. (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. I, sec. 141).
- Longer quote available at: The Commons and the Tragedy of Banking, Phillip Bagus, November 12, 2003
- The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2009
- Two Americans Are Awarded Nobel in Economics , NY Times,October 12, 2009.
- Nobel Prize site press statement