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