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Human Ecology, Vol. 29, No. 4, 2001 Hardin Revisited: A Critical Look at Perception and the Logic of the Commons Bryan E. Burke 1 With perhaps controversial implications for theory and practice, this paper suggests that the validity of Hardinian theories of the commons are dependent on the implicit rational choice assumption that resource users are aware of re- source degradation. Without an awareness of the collective costs of resource use, there can be no dilemma between pursuing individual benefits and avoid- ing collective ruin. In such situations, the dilemma of the commons cannot be validly said to be the cause of resource depletion, and many traditional pol- icy options to address common resource depletion may not be effective. Two reasons for the lack of awareness about resource degradation are (1) fatalistic beliefs that humans cannot harm a resource base, and (2) the growing com- plexityandabstractionofmodernenvironmentalproblemsthathaveobscured the collective costs of resource use from our individual and societal awareness. KEY WORDS: common resources; perception; rational choice theory. INTRODUCTION Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is a classic. He argues that common resource situations usually lead to ruin because benefits ac- crue to individuals and costs are collectively shared (Hardin, 1968). Some authors have criticized Hardin and suggested that users are often more able to cooperatively manage common resources than he suggests (e.g., Feeny et al ., 1990; McCay, 1995; Ostrom, 1990). This post-Hardinian perspective, which has firmly emerged in the last 10 years, recognizes the potential for “Tragedies of the Commons,” but emphasizes many mitigating sociocultural and ecological factors that Hardin ignored. 1 Department of Sociology, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington; e-mail: [email protected] 449 0300-7839/01/1200-0449$19.50/0 C 2001 Plenum Publishing Corporation
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450 Burke This paper will focus on a previously unaddressed shortcoming of Hardin’s theory of the commons 2 and also of the post-Hardinian literature. The literature fails to fully consider the effects of perception on resource use. With implications for theory and policy, I suggest that to the extent that common resource users are unaware of resource degradation, it is inappro- priate to use the dilemma of the commons as an explanation of that resource degradation. Hardin agreed with this interpretation of his work and the literature (G. Hardin, personal communication, November 5, 1997). If resource users are not aware of degradation, there cannot be a dilemma between pursuing individual gain and avoiding collective ruin because the users lack knowl- edge of collective costs. Of course, when common resource users are not aware of collective costs, ruin can still result. However, the reason is a lack of awareness, not the dilemma of the commons. The failure to recognize this role of perception in common resource use is likely to result in incorrect predictions and misguided policy recommendations. For example, if com-
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  • Spring '16
  • Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin, Common-pool resource

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