First posited in 1968 by American ecologist Garret Hardin, the Tragedy of the Commons describes a situation where shared environmental resources are overused and exploited, and eventually depleted, posing risks to everyone involved. Hardin argues that to prevent this, there should be some restrictions to the amount of usage, for example, property rights must be affixed.
What is the Tragedy of the Commons?
Tragedy of the Commons is an economic problem where individuals have access to a shared resource and act in their own interest, at the expense of other individuals. This can result in overconsumption, underinvestment, and depletion of resources.
Garrett Hardin, an evolutionary biologist, wrote a paper called “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the journal Science in 1968. The paper addressed the growing concern of overpopulation, and Hardin used an example of sheep grazing land when describing the adverse effects of overpopulation. In the example, grazing lands held as private property will see their use limited by the prudence of the land holder in order to preserve the value of the land and health of the herd. Grazing lands held in common will become over-saturated with livestock because the food the animals consume is shared among all herdsmen.
Hardin argues that individual short-term interest– to take as much of a resource as possible- is in opposition to societal good. If everyone was to act on this individual interest, the situation would worsen for society as a whole- demand for a shared resource would overshadow the supply, and the resource would eventually become entirely unavailable.
Conversely, exercising restraint would yield benefits for all in the long-term, as the shared resource would remain available.
Tragedy of the Commons Examples
Arguably the best examples of this phenomenon occur in situations that lead to environmental degradation.
Among many things, pollution is caused by wastewater. As the number of households and companies increase and dump their waste into the water, the water loses its ability to clean itself. This results in water that is toxic to wildlife and the people that live around and rely on it.
Another example of the Tragedy of the Commons lies in overfishing. In Canada, the Grand Banks fishery off the coast of Newfoundland was a means of livelihood for regional fishermen. Abundant in cod, the fishery allowed fishermen to catch as many cod as they desired without negatively impacting their population.
Then, in the 1960s, advancements in technology allowed fishermen to catch vast quantities of cod, far more than before. However, with each passing season, the amount of cod deteriorated and by the 1990s, the fishing industry in the region collapsed because there wasn’t enough fish to go around. This situation where individual fishermen took advantage of opportunities to benefit themselves in the short term, even when their actions were clearly detrimental to society in the long term, encapsulates the self-preserving mindset behind the Tragedy of the Commons. These fishermen thought logically, but not collectively, which led to their downfall.
The Tragedy of the Commons can also be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. In its early days, people were generally wary of mixing with anyone outside their immediate family, leaving their homes less and working from home. However, another result of the pandemic was that people began to stock up on food and utilities. People likely assumed that everyone else would stock up as well and so the only solution was to preempt this scenario and stockpile food before the next person could. Again, people were thinking logically, but not collectively, and herein lies the relevance of the Tragedy of the Commons. Individuals took advantage of opportunities that benefited themselves, but spread out the harmful effects of their consumption across society.
Retailers responded by imposing restrictions on the number of items one could buy, but it was too late. Entire grocery aisles were empty, wiped clean.
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What About the Environment?
Shared resources that mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis are abused constantly.
No single authority can pass laws that protect the entire ocean. Each country can only manage and protect the ocean resources along its coastlines, leaving the shared common space beyond any particular jurisdiction vulnerable to pollution. This has led to obscene amounts of ocean pollution, as seen in garbage patches that accumulate in the center of circular currents, for example. This will affect everyone as these pollutants cycle through the marine food chain, and then humans as we consume fish. Another problem facing the oceans are dead zones, areas in lakes and oceans where no marine life can live because of the lack of oxygen caused by excessive pollution and fertiliser runoff.
The atmosphere is another resource being used and abused, as are forests. Unregulated and illegal logging pose great risks to forests’ ability to store carbon. In some parts of the world, vast expanses of rainforests aren’t governed in a way that allows effective management for resource extraction. Timber producers are driven to take as much timber as possible as cheaply as possible, without considering the wider impacts of doing so.
Poor governance exacerbates the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons.
Who is Meant to Fix It?
Ideally, governments at the local, state, national and international levels would define and manage shared resources. However, there are problems with this. Management inside clear boundaries is quite straightforward, but more problematic are resources shared across jurisdictions. For example, at the international level, states are not bound by a common authority and may view restrictions on resource extraction as a threat to their sovereignty. Additionally, more difficulties arise when resources cannot be divided, such as in whale treaties when the fishing of the whales’ food source is separately regulated.
Economist Scott Barrett at Columbia University in New York says that international law “has no teeth, so treaties are essentially voluntary. “Even when countries decide to take part in collective conservation efforts, they can simply pull out again when they want to,” as Canada did in 2011 when it pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol and when America withdrew from the Paris Agreement in late 2019.
As the global population increases and demand for resources follows, the downsides of the Commons become more apparent. Some may argue that this will test the role and practicality of nation-states, leading to a redefinition of international governance. Further, it may lead some to question the role of supranational governments, such as the UN or the World Trade Organization; as resources become more limited, some may argue that managing the commons may not have a solution at all.
What Can Be Done?
A potential solution to this is to affix property rights to public spaces. For example, charging a toll to use a freeway or implementing a tax for dumping wastewater would reduce the number of users to those who act in the best interests of others, not only themselves. Other solutions could include government intervention or developing strategies to trigger collective behaviour, such as assigning small groups in a community a plot of land to look after.
Overall, regulating consumption and use can reduce over-consumption and government investment in conservation and renewal of the resource can help prevent it’s depletion.