What Is Garrett Hardin's Simple Mathematical Argument for the Inevitability of “Tragedy of the Commons"?
People must no longer be free to add unlimited numbers of offspring to the total load on the earth's ecosystems. This sounds simple enough, but the key question is how this restriction is to be achieved. Hardin's rejection of some solutions stems from the individualistic assumptions of his metaphor. Particularly, he rejects appeals to conscience, because they would "select for" those without scruples over having more children. It is doubtful however that conscience is entirely genetic, nor perfectly transmitted by learning in families. Further, his assumption that were it not for "welfare," over-breeders would have to pay for their profligacy, runs in the face of evidence that parents whose infants die are paradoxically both more inclined to get pregnant again, and less likely to emotionally invest in their young. Welfare may indeed be part of solving the population problem. This is just one example where Hardin fails to differentiate reproductive behavior according to socio-economic conditions.
In his profoundly influential paper, “The tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1986), Hardin wrote, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” It has proved to be a powerful idea. To Hardin and others, the same grim logic was behind many of our biggest problems. Common resources, such as fisheries, forests, and even the air are threatened by selfish individuals and nations taking what they can, even though they know the resource will be wiped out if everyone does the same. Hardin’s solution was to cede our freedoms to the state, to be bound by “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon”. This brand of tragedy is particularly urgent today as our population and technology put more and more strain on limited nature. On the global stage, the greatest tragedy of the commons is climate change. Despite knowing of this looming threat, countries have delayed taking real action for decades, quarreling over costs and responsibility, failing to build trust, all the while continuing to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Even in the wake of the Paris Agreement, the 2016 United States election has placed the status of a major player in doubt. Lacking any higher authority to rein in the selfishness of nations, are we doomed? Maybe not. As later researchers pointed out, the picture is more complicated than Hardin allowed. Although some resources are abused, others are often managed well without state intervention. Recent interdisciplinary work offers hope that the tragedy is not so inevitable after all. Instead, governments and institutions can design systems to help people control their selfish impulses, join collective schemes, and protect endangered resources. The global stage is more troublesome, but insights from game theory point to a possible way out of the climate change coma and other seemingly tragic situations: We just need to change the game that nations play (Ostrom E., 1990).
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