Classics: Tragedy of the Commons

28 02 2011

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.

Hardin’s paper is now a central paradigm in natural resources management (e.g., fisheries); however, his work has been criticized most notably by Elinor Ostrom – the first woman to be awarded the Noble Prize in economics in 2009. In her classic work, Ostrom (1990) showed that when communities are given the freedom to self-govern, they are, under certain conditions, able to use the commons sustainably. Another controversial theme of Hardin’s paper is that an expanding human population is a detriment to the planet and its ability to support human existence, and thus he implies that humanity needs to be educated to relinquish the freedom to breed without limit (for more recent discussion see Ehrlich & Pringle, 2008).

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgHardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons Science, 162 (3859), 1243-1248 DOI: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243



3 responses

28 02 2011

Public pressure in the UK has defeated govt. plans to privatise what remains of our woodlands but the population is soaring-in the face of official denial-and the ideological cost-cutting free market agenda is being imposed on an increasingly fragmented society.
Poverty, overcrowding ,inequality and privatisation of many public bodies will leave little to spare for the protection of what remains of our natural resources-both flora and fauna.


2 03 2011
stephen michael

to what end was the uk govt planning to privatise it’s remnant woodlands? tourism, logging, to preserve the king’s game?

the issue i have with privatising the commons, such as national parks, is that this leads to restricted access, usually along socio-economic lines. i realise this is the point: too many people free loading in the common degrades it’s value to all; but denying an experience of nature to groups within society goes against the principle of promoting biophilia.

in a democracy, less biophilia doesn’t sound like a good way to encourage conservation, but neither does a free-for-all. i guess that’s why ostrom got a nobel for her work on community level governance.


28 02 2011

The tragedy of the commons is being played out right now in the battle for marine parks & sanctuary zones. So much selfishness and so little room for the silent voice of the marine environment. So many loud, unsubstantiated claims being plucked out of thin air and to what end? Eventually to a network of marine sanctuaries that probably won’t work because they’ll end up being too small, too fragmented and too far apart. We need better than that if we are to build in resilience to our marine ecosystems. Yes, we may need to eat less fish, not more, and yes, we may need to pay more for it but that’s because it is a finite resource in an overpopulated world. Marine protected areas work, there is bucket loads of good science to provide evidence for this. Altruism in a capitalist world? The tragedy of the commons shows this isn’t so (in most cases and especially in the ocean).


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