What Is the “Tragedy of the Commons” as Explained by Garrett Hardin?
The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem in which every individual has an incentive to consume a resource at the expense of every other individual with no way to exclude anyone from consuming. It results in overconsumption, under investment, and ultimately depletion of the resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits. Generally, the resource of interest is easily available to all individuals; the tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain.
In 1974 the general public got a graphic illustration of the “tragedy of the commons” in satellite photos of the earth. Pictures of northern Africa showed an irregular dark patch 390 square miles in area. Ground-level investigation revealed a fenced area inside of which there was plenty of grass. Outside, the ground cover had been devastated. The explanation was simple. The fenced area was private property, subdivided into five portions. Each year the owners moved their animals to a new section. Fallow periods of four years gave the pastures time to recover from the grazing. The owners did this because they had an incentive to take care of their land. But no one owned the land outside the ranch. It was open to nomads and their herds. Though knowing nothing of Karl Marx, the herdsmen followed his famous advice of 1875: “To each according to his needs.” Their needs were uncontrolled and grew with the increase in the number of animals. But supply was governed by nature and decreased drastically during the drought of the early 1970s. The herds exceeded the natural “carrying capacity” of their environment, soil was compacted and eroded, and “weedy” plants, unfit for cattle consumption, replaced good plants. Many cattle died, and so did humans. The rational explanation for such ruin was given more than 170 years ago. In 1832 William Forster Lloyd, a political economist at Oxford University, looking at the recurring devastation of common (i.e., not privately owned) pastures in England, asked: “Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining inclosures?” Lloyd’s answer assumed that each human exploiter of the common was guided by self-interest. At the point when the carrying capacity of the commons was fully reached, a herdsman might ask himself, “Should I add another animal to my herd?” Because the herdsman owned his animals, the gain of so doing would come solely to him. But the loss incurred by overloading the pasture would be “commonized” among all the herdsmen. Because the privatized gain would exceed his share of the commonized loss, a self-seeking herdsman would add another animal to his herd. And another. And reasoning in the same way, so would all the other herdsmen. Ultimately, the common property would be ruined. Even when herdsmen understand the long-run consequences of their actions, they generally are powerless to prevent such damage without some coercive means of controlling the actions of each individual. Idealists may appeal to individuals caught in such a system, asking them to let the long-term effects govern their actions. But each individual must first survive in the short run. If all decision makers were unselfish and idealistic calculators, a distribution governed by the rule “to each according to his needs” might work. But such is not our world. As James Madison said in 1788, “If men were angels, no Government would be necessary”.
In this regard, the way one person will want to use certain resources may not be in the best interest of the group as a whole. In his view, people should be regulated in that how they use various resources so that society at large can benefit. Tragedy of the commons affects continuity of life in an ecosystem. Hardin refers to common resources whose unregulated consumption can affect the community negatively (Hetzel 3). According to Hardin, common resources should be regulated so as to ensure that their consumption is beneficial to the community as a whole. Tragedy of the commons occurs because people are given too much freedom when it comes to making choices about resource utilization. In his view, if a common resource is used while taking into consideration the collective interests of a community, each individual will benefit (Manning 112). Tragedy of the commons can lead to overuse of various resources and inability of an ecosystem to sustain itself. It is important to note that tragedy of the commons is catastrophic to the community if it is allowed to happen. Depletion of one resource can lead to extinction of various organisms. I disagree with Hardin on his argument that tragedy of the commons is a problem with no technical solution, as the solution to tragedy of the commons calls for both technical and non-technical approaches. It should be noted that for tragedy of the commons to be avoided, values and believes of people must be changed (Dauvergne 223). People should learn the virtue of sharing and avoid egocentric desires for the benefit of everybody in the society. To achieve this, the change of moral values in individuals will be required. Nonetheless, one cannot be prevented from using a given resource if he or she is not given a substitute (Hetzel 9). Therefore, tragedy of the commons requires a technological solution in order to be averted. To ensure sustainable energy sources in the future we have to come up with renewable sources of energy and embrace them. Notably, common resources have to be utilized albeit in a manner that serves the interests of the whole community. It is important to note that there are circumstances when it is acceptable to use common resources without necessarily depleting them. One of the ways is when the rate of consumption is lower than the rate of replacement or renewal (Manning 134). This will ensure that resources are saved for future generations.
After all, hope requires us to start from an unconditional commitment to one another, as passengers aboard a common lifeboat being rattled by heavy winds. The climate movement needs more people on this lifeboat, not fewer. We must make room for every human if we are going to build the political power necessary to face down the looming oil tankers and coal barges that send heavy waves in our direction. This is a commitment at the heart of proposals like the Green New Deal. Fifty years on, let’s stop the mindless invocation of Hardin. Let’s stop saying that we are all to blame because we all overuse shared resources. Let’s stop championing policies that privilege environmental protection for some human beings at the expense of others. And let’s replace Hardin’s flawed metaphor with an inclusive vision for humanity—one based on democratic governance and cooperation in this time of darkness.
Dauvergne, Peter. Handbook of Global Environmental Politics. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005. Print.
Hetzel, Julia. To What Extent is the Tragedy of the Commons Restricting Option When Dealing with a Gloabal Ecological Crisis. Munchen: GRIN Verlag, 2011. Print.
Manning, Robert E. Parks and Carrying Capacity: Commons Without Tragedy. Washington: Island Press, 2007. Print.