The Tragedy of the Commons | Study Guide

Garrett Hardin

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The Tragedy of the Commons | Main Ideas


The Tragedy of the Commons

The title of Garrett Hardin's 1968 article builds on economist William Forster Lloyd's 1833 publication Two Lectures on the Checks to Population. Lloyd's work describes how a resource shared by a group of individuals becomes depleted. Lloyd used the example of a plot of grassland to represent shared resources. Several farmers share a pasture for grazing their cattle. At first the pasture benefits each farmer in equal proportion. However, each farmer soon realizes bringing in more of their own cattle will cost them little since the costs are shared by everyone in the group.

As each farmer comes to the same conclusion, the pasture becomes overrun with cattle and eventually is worthless for grazing. Without limits on use, members of a group take advantage of the resource and selfishly exploit it for their own ends until it is exhausted. In Lloyd's example, the number of cattle grazing on the land was not a problem until their numbers grew to a tipping point and the pasture could no longer support them.

Hardin describes this process as a tragedy. In his own work Hardin views the world's natural and manufactured resources as the commons and overpopulation as the force that dooms it to inevitable destruction. Just as the grazing land was depleted, the earth's resources eventually will not be able to support the rapidly growing human population.

Diminishing Resources

The earth's resources of clean air, water, minerals and ores, energy, and food sources are limited. At the same time a growing population increases demands on these resources as more people need basic necessities and desire goods and services to improve their quality of life. In turn this leads to more industrial production, resulting in air and water pollution; competition for control of land, oil, and mineral resources; and the destruction of oceans, rivers, and forests. When individuals, companies, or nations are at liberty to use as much of a shared resource as they want, they take an unfair share for their own use or exploit it without concern for others. Natural resources are depleted or destroyed ever faster, and the quality of human life, which depends on these resources, is endangered. Moreover, as individuals or nations compete for increasingly limited resources, the potential for devastating violence grows.

Hardin's Solution

To protect and preserve shared resources, Hardin argues, use of the resource must be controlled by laws, controlled by social pressure, or maintained as private property. Overbreeding is an example of exploiting the commons, since large families and densely overpopulated regions use large portions of local, national, and global resources. Therefore, Hardin argues, like other individual freedoms, breeding must be regulated. Sexual urges and the desire for children are difficult to suppress, so encouraging voluntary abstinence is not a realistic option. For the benefit of all humanity, societies must find ways to coerce individuals to limit family size. According to Hardin, giving up the freedom to breed without limit would benefit all. Controlling birth rate and population size can free humanity of anxiety, famine, war, and deprivation.

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