Tragedy of the commons (20TH CENTURY)

An illustration of game theory.

The tragedy of the commons is an illustration of how the rational pursuit of individual advantage appears to lead to solutions which are in the best interests of neither individuals nor the community as a whole.

A group of peasants is assumed to have grazing rights, but if each peasant puts his cattle on the common seven days a week the pasture will be exhausted and the cattle will starve. If everyone would voluntarily limit themselves to four days a week, there would be enough. But if everyone limits their use, then the self-interested individual has no reason to limit his. If everyone does not limit their use, he has even less reason. So the commons are destroyed.

Also see: chicken, prisoner’s dilemma, zero-sum

Christopher Hood, Administrative Analysis (Brighton, 1986)


Cows on Selsley Common, UK. Lloyd used shared grazing of common land as an illustration of where abuse of rights could occur.

Lloyd’s pamphlet

In 1833, the English economist William Forster Lloyd published a pamphlet which included a hypothetical example of over-use of a common resource. This was the situation of cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they were each entitled to let their cows graze, as was the custom in English villages. He postulated that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing could result. For each additional animal, a herder could receive additional benefits, while the whole group shared the resulting damage to the commons. If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.[1]

Garrett Hardin’s article

The Tragedy of the Commons
Presented 13 December 1968
Location Science
Author(s) Garrett Hardin
Media type Article

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in his article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, published in the journal Science.[2] The essay derived its title from the pamphlet by Lloyd, which he cites, on the over-grazing of common land.

Hardin discussed problems that cannot be solved by technical means, as distinct from those with solutions that require “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”. Hardin focused on human population growth, the use of the Earth’s natural resources, and the welfare state.[8] Hardin argued that if individuals relied on themselves alone, and not on the relationship of society and man, then the number of children had by each family would not be of public concern. Parents breeding excessively would leave fewer descendants because they would be unable to provide for each child adequately. Such negative feedback is found in the animal kingdom.[8] Hardin said that if the children of improvident parents starved to death, if overbreeding was its own punishment, then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families.[8] Hardin blamed the welfare state for allowing the tragedy of the commons; where the state provides for children and supports overbreeding as a fundamental human right, Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable. Consequently, in his article, Hardin lamented the following proposal from the United Nations:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. [Article 16] [9] It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

— U Thant, Statement on Population by the Secretary-General of the United Nations[10]

In addition, Hardin also pointed out the problem of individuals acting in rational self-interest by claiming that if all members in a group used common resources for their own gain and with no regard for others, all resources would still eventually be depleted. Overall, Hardin argued against relying on conscience as a means of policing commons, suggesting that this favors selfish individuals – often known as free riders – over those who are more altruistic.

In the context of avoiding over-exploitation of common resources, Hardin concluded by restating Hegel’s maxim (which was quoted by Engels), “freedom is the recognition of necessity”. He suggested that “freedom” completes the tragedy of the commons. By recognizing resources as commons in the first place, and by recognizing that, as such, they require management, Hardin believed that humans “can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms”.

The “Commons” as a modern resource concept

Hardin’s article was the start of the modern use of “Commons” as a term connoting a shared resource. As Frank van Laerhoven and Elinor Ostrom have stated: “Prior to the publication of Hardin’s article on the tragedy of the commons (1968), titles containing the words ‘the commons’, ‘common pool resources,’ or ‘common property’ were very rare in the academic literature.” They go on to say: “In 2002, Barrett and Mabry conducted a major survey of biologists to determine which publications in the twentieth century had become classic books or benchmark publications in biology. They report that Hardin’s 1968 article was the one having the greatest career impact on biologists and is the most frequently cited”.[11]


Metaphoric meaning

Like Lloyd and Thomas Malthus before him, Hardin was primarily interested in the problem of human population growth. But in his essay, he also focused on the use of larger (though finite) resources such as the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, as well as pointing out the “negative commons” of pollution (i.e., instead of dealing with the deliberate privatization of a positive resource, a “negative commons” deals with the deliberate commonization of a negative cost, pollution).

As a metaphor, the tragedy of the commons should not be taken too literally. The “tragedy” is not in the word’s conventional or theatric sense, nor a condemnation of the processes that lead to it. Similarly, Hardin’s use of “commons” has frequently been misunderstood, leading him to later remark that he should have titled his work “The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons”.[12][13]

The metaphor illustrates the argument that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to the point in which they become reliant on it, while the costs of the exploitation are borne by all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball until the resource collapses (even if it retains a capacity to recover). The rate at which depletion of the resource is realized depends primarily on three factors: the number of users wanting to consume the common in question, the consumptive nature of their uses, and the relative robustness of the common.[14]

The same concept is sometimes called the “tragedy of the fishers”, because fishing too many fish before or during breeding could cause stocks to plummet.[15]

Modern commons

The tragedy of the commons can be considered in relation to environmental issues such as sustainability. The commons dilemma stands as a model for a great variety of resource problems in society today, such as water, forests,[16] fish, and non-renewable energy sources such as oil and coal.

Situations exemplifying the “tragedy of the commons” include the overfishing and destruction of the Grand Banks, the destruction of salmon runs on rivers that have been dammed – most prominently in modern times on the Columbia River in the Northwest United States, and historically in North Atlantic rivers – the devastation of the sturgeon fishery – in modern Russia, but historically in the United States as well – and, in terms of water supply, the limited water available in arid regions (e.g., the area of the Aral Sea) and the Los Angeles water system supply, especially at Mono Lake and Owens Lake.

In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Negative externalities are a well-known feature of the “tragedy of the commons”. For example, driving cars has many negative externalities; these include pollution, carbon emissions, and traffic accidents. Every time ‘Person A’ gets in a car, it becomes more likely that ‘Person Z’ – and millions of others – will suffer in each of those areas.[17] Economists often urge the government to adopt policies that “internalize” an externality.[18]

The tragedy of commons can also be referred to the idea of open data. Anonymised data are crucial for useful social research and represent therefore a public resource – better said a common good – which is liable to exhaustion. Some feel that the law should provide a safe haven for the dissemination of research data, since it can be argued that current data protection policies overburden valuable research without mitigating realistic risks.[19]

Tragedy of the Digital Commons  

In the past two decades, scholars have been attempting to apply the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons to the digital environment. However, between scholars there are differences on some very basic notions inherent to the tragedy of the commons – the idea of finite resources and the extent of pollution. On the other hand there seems to be some agreement on the role of the Digital Divide and how to solve a potential Tragedy of the Digital Commons.

Resources and Pollution

In terms of resources, there is no coherent conception of whether digital resources are finite. Some scholars argue that digital resources are infinite because downloading a file does not constitute the destruction of the file in the digital environment. Digital resources, as such, are merely replicated and disseminated throughout the digital environment and as such can be understood as infinite.[20] While others argue that data, for example, is a finite resource because privacy laws and regulations put a significant strain on the access to data.[21]

This begs the question whether one can view access itself as a finite resource in the context of a digital environment. Some scholars argue this point, often pointing to a proxy for access that is more concrete and measurable. One such proxy is bandwidth, which can become congested when too many people try to access the digital environment.[20][22] Alternatively, one can think of the network itself as a common resource which can be exhausted through overuse.[23] Therefore when talking about resources running out in a digital environment, it could be more useful to think in terms of the access to the digital environment being restricted in some way – this is called information entropy.

In terms of pollution, there are some scholars that look only at the pollution that occurs in the digital environment itself. They argue that unrestricted use of digital resources can cause an overproduction of redundant data which causes noise and corrupts communication channels within the digital environment.[20] Others argue that the pollution caused by the overuse of digital resources also causes pollution in the physical environment. They argue that unrestricted use of digital resources causes misinformation, fake news, crime, and terrorism, as well as problems of a different nature such as confusion, manipulation, insecurity, and loss of confidence.[24]

Digital Divide and Solutions

Scholars disagree on the particularities underlying the Tragedy of the Digital Commons, however, there does seem to be some agreement on the cause and the solution. The cause of the Tragedy of the Commons occurring in the digital environment is attributed by some scholars to the Digital Divide. They argue that there is too large a focus on bridging this divide and provide unrestricted access to everyone. Such a focus on increasing access without the necessary restrictions causes the exploitation of digital resources for individual self interest that is underlying any Tragedy of the Commons.[20][22]

In terms of the solution, scholars agree that cooperation rather than regulation is the best way to mitigate a Tragedy of the Digital Commons. The digital world is not a closed system in which a central authority can regulate the users, as such some scholars argue that voluntary cooperation must be fostered.[22] This could perhaps be done through digital governance structure that motivates multiple stakeholders to engage and collaborate in the decision-making process.[24] Other scholars argue more in favor of formal or informal sets of rules, like a code of conduct, to promote ethical behavior in the digital environment and foster trust.[20][25] Alternative to managing relations between people, some scholars argue that it is access itself that needs to be properly managed, which includes expansion of network capacity.

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