Classics: Tragedy of the Commons

28 02 2011

Another one from our upcoming chapter in the book ‘Biodiversity’ to be published later this year by InTech.

Although not a conservation biology paper per se, Hardin’s classic essay (Hardin, 1968) changed the way we think about managing natural resources that lack definitive ownership.

The thesis of the “tragedy of the commons” is that individuals are inherently selfish and usually place their own interests first in using commonly owned resources, thereby resulting in their depletion. Hardin used a hypothetical and simplified situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe (herders sharing a common parcel of land) on which each herder was entitled to graze his cattle. Each herder maximized his gains by putting additional cattle onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common was exceeded and overgrazing ensued. The herder, by making an “individually rational decision,” received all the benefits from his cattle, but could in the process deplete the common resource for the entire group. If all herders make such selfish decisions then the common will be depleted, jeopardizing the livelihoods of all.

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