Tragedy of the commons

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Concept origin

The concept of "The Tragedy of the Commons", stems from Garrett Hardin‘s influential article, in which he referred to all common-pool natural resources that were not either government or privately owned. As a metaphor he envisioned a pasture open to all, in which each herder received an immediate individual benefit from adding animals to graze on the pasture and suffered only delayed costs (with his fellow herders) from overgrazing. Hardin (1968) concluded: "Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. 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".

Hardin further states that "in a reverse way, the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution" i.e inputs into the commons such as "sewage or "chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water" (Hardin, 1968) He writes: "The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them". Since this is true for everyone, we are bound to "foul our own nest," so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers‖ (Hardin, 1968) Hardin gives an example in the development of maritime fisheries. ―Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the 'freedom of the seas'. Professing to believe in the 'inexhaustible resources of the oceans', they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction‖ (Hardin, 1968) Avoidance of the tragedy of the commons, according to Hardin will require coercive laws, but should be a "mutual coercion" agreed by the majority of people. Most importantly, he argues, there is a need for coercion over reproduction: ―The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognise, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all‖ (Hardin, 1968). He also states "to couple the concept of freedom to breed with equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action‖ (Hardin, 1968).

Enclosure of the Commons

Regarding human rights Hardin argues that every restriction on commons rights ("enclosure of the commons") involves the infringement of somebody's personal liberty. But, he says, infringements made in the distant past are accepted today as they are not seen as a "loss", while "newly proposed infringements" are "vigorously opposed" with "cries of rights and freedom". ―"But what does freedom mean?" he asks, and concludes that, as Hegel put it "freedom is the recognition of necessity" and that the underlying problem is that if we continue to insist on all present-day freedoms we will bring "universal ruin" (Hardin, 1968)


Many authors have pointed out that Hardin mistakenly wrote ―commons‖ when he meant ―open access‖. Nagendra and Ostrom (2008) say that: ―A common-pool resource can be managed under any of the following property-rights regimes: government ownership (where a formal government ranging in size from a local city all the way to national government claimed ownership of the resource and the right to fully determine who could or could not use and under what circumstances); private ownership (where a single individual or private firm has full claims to determine use patterns; community or common property ownership (where a group of individuals shares rights to ownership); or "no ownership" or "open access," which is what Hardin assumed in his illustrative case." Therefore open access is only one out of four general possibilities that can relate to a common-pool resource.


According to Vatn (2005) any property regime except open access – be it private, common or state/public property – may have very precise rules or norms establishing the necessary incentives for resource use. However, such property regimes also have incentive problems when externalities appear due to the ―fact that resources and natural processes are interconnects – linking various resource uses necessarily to waste production.‖ In economic terms he states ―this can be translated into "high costs of keeping different agents and their uses apart". If it were possible to costlessly demarcate all streams of benefits, all processes, there would be no external effects. Each agent would own and consume only his or her own parts‖. But given the existing interrelations in natural resource systems, this is impossible. And even if it were possible, it would ruin the quality of the resources, since their very functioning depends on their working together.

Evidence from the field and from research around the world has emerged to show the multiple rules-in-use found in successful commons regimes around the world. To be effective, rules must be generally known and understood, considered relatively legitimate, generally followed, and enforced. ―Effective, sustainable community management of common property natural resources is also more likely to occur when the boundary of the resource is easy to identify, changes in the state of the resource can be monitored at a relatively low cost, the rate of change in resource condition and in the socioeconomic and technological conditions of users remains moderate, communities maintain frequent social interactions with each other that increase trust within the community (thereby increasing social capital), outsiders can be relatively easily excluded from accessing the resource (preventing large-scale invasion of the resource by outsiders), and rule infractions are monitored and sanctioned (Nagendra and Ostrom, 2008).

Nagendra and Ostrom (2008) conclude that: ―Just as government ownership does not represent a final solution for the sustainable use of natural resources, […] neither is community management a panacea for all the ills that plague natural resource management. Instead, much more attention needs to be paid to the adaptive crafting of institutions that fit socio-ecological systems, and policy scientists need to recognize diversity in the institutions that can assist human users to devise arrangements for sustainable management of a resource‖ (Nagendra and Ostrom, 2008).


  • Hardin, G. (1968): The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162 (3859), pp. 1243-1248.
  • Nagendra, H., Ostrom, E. (Lead Authors) and Saundry, P. (Topic Editor) (2008): Governing the commons in the new millennium: A diversity of institutions for natural resource management. In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth November 16, 2007; Last revised August 12, 2008; Retrieved January 24, 2010]. <*/Governing_the_commons_in_the_new_millennium:_A_diversity_of_institutions_for_natural_resource_management>
  • Ostrom, E. (2007): Challenges and growth: the development of the interdisciplinary

field of institutional analysis . Journal of Institutional Economics 3 (3), pp. 239–264 Vatn, A. (2005), Institutions and the Environment, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

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