The Tragedy of the Commons | Study Guide

Garrett Hardin

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The Tragedy of the Commons | Summary



Garrett Hardin's 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons" argues overpopulation is depleting the earth's resources. He warns without countermeasures, humans are doomed to misery. This echoes the writings of Thomas Robert Malthus, who observed in 1798 the population growth rate inevitably outpaces food production, leading to widespread starvation. Since then, many arguments have challenged Malthus's theory. Although some areas of the world have experienced periods of famine, Malthus's debunkers argue technology has prevented and can continue to prevent famine through advances in agricultural techniques. They point out technology has improved the quality of life across the globe, even as the population has doubled.

In "The Tragedy of the Commons" Hardin counters such faith in technology. His paper opens with an image of two superpowers building more and more missiles to extend their power as well as protect their own citizens. According to Hardin, this stalemate is an example of a situation that cannot be resolved by new technology. In fact, technology helped escalate the situation to deadly proportions. No matter what technological solutions we create, Hardin argues, they are only short-term. New technology will support an increased population that will deplete the additional resources.

What Shall We Maximize?

Hardin argues we must assume the world's resources are finite so we can work toward a solution, and he rejects colonization of other planets as an option. He next challenges the belief the earth's resources have the capacity to support still more people. Hardin argues there is a difference between maximum and optimum population. Maximum population simply means having as many people on Earth as possible. Optimum population implies a level of quality of life. The more people there are, the fewer nutritional and natural resources there are per person. Supporting the maximum population means surrendering the possibility of pleasure, leisure, or any other activity beyond basic survival.

Hardin also challenges 18th-century economist Adam Smith's 1776 treatise The Wealth of Nations. Smith posited when individuals make decisions for their own gain, their selfish acts will be guided by the mechanism of the "invisible hand," which ultimately leads people to create stable societies. Hardin says if Smith's theory is correct, people will intuitively choose to limit their number of children. If not, social controls are required.

Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons

Hardin fears dire consequences when a population shares a limited resource. Without limits on individual use, the resource will inevitably be depleted.

Hardin illustrates this by citing an 1833 essay by economist William Forster Lloyd. Lloyd presents a fertile community pasture on which a number of herders graze their cattle. At the start each herder keeps a small number of cattle on the land. However, over time, each man realizes it would be to his benefit to graze a few more, and then many more. Before long the pasture is overrun with cattle trampling grass and competing for fodder. The tipping point has been reached. Eventually the grass is gone, the soil erodes, and the pasture becomes worthless for grazing. This is the tragedy of the commons: when there are no limits on use, members of a group take advantage of a shared resource until it is exhausted.


Hardin names several modern tragedies of the commons. Maritime countries overfish the oceans until species become extinct. Music blares from car radios and intrusive billboards infringe on shared vistas. Without concern for the commons, industries pour sewage, chemicals, heat, and fumes into the air and water, leading to the degradation of the environment and the potential destruction of life. According to Hardin, these tragedies of the commons directly result from overpopulation.

How to Legislate Temperance?

Hardin states what a society considers moral is "system-sensitive," by which he means the context is important to understanding the society's values. He gives the example of a pioneer killing a bison and wasting most of the animal. In the context in which the pioneer lived, the action would not be considered harmful to the abundant population of bison. However, now there are far fewer bison and such an act would be unconscionable. Because our laws tend to be based on "ancient ethics," they tend not to take context into account as much as they should, which can make them "poorly suited" to modern society.

Hardin describes two kinds of laws: statutory law and administrative law. Statutory laws have been passed by a legislature, while administrative laws are regulations to enforce the statutory laws. Hardin proposes administrative law, while flawed, is the better suited of the two to regulating temperance, or the restraint of an activity.

Freedom to Breed Is Intolerable

The activity Hardin believes needs to be restrained is human breeding. The obstacle to limiting population growth, he states, is the general belief breeding is a human right. Merging "freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons" will lead to disaster. He criticizes the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights for affirming the rights of each family to decide how many children to have.

Conscience Is Self-Eliminating

Hardin next addresses the question of how to change this belief and reduce the rate of human breeding. He argues appeals to conscience or guilt are self-defeating. Humans with a social conscience who voluntarily abstain from breeding will be taken advantage of by those without such a conscience. Those without a social conscience will have more children, and over successive generations, altruism could disappear as a human trait.

Pathogenic Effects of Conscience

Hardin explores the idea of a "double bind," a term attributed to the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. If people are asked to stop an activity that is harmful to the commons with an "appeal to conscience," Hardin argues, they are being given two conflicting messages. The first is they will be reprimanded for not being "responsible" if they do not take the recommended action. The second is if they do what is asked, they are easily coerced "simpletons" who will be giving up access to the commons while others continue to exploit them and benefit.

Hardin believes the overused tactic of making people feel guilty is not effective. It merely causes "anxiety" in those who are asked to act against their own interests. Real sanctions are preferable.

Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon

Hardin believes the way to change people's attitudes and behaviors is not through guilt or force but through "mutual coercion." He admits the term coercion has negative connotations but prefers it to "persuasion." Since appeals to social conscience do not work, people must be coerced by mutual agreement to limit family size. Hardin recommends instituting "not prohibition, but carefully biased options." An individual is free to choose between adhering to social agreements and facing sanctions. He uses taxes as an example of mutual coercion. Without penalties, he says, those without consciences would not voluntarily contribute to the communal good.

Recognition of Necessity

Hardin challenges the argument restrictions limit freedom. He argues restrictions protect us from each other's exploitation. Just as parking meters and parking tickets limit our options, they also make it more likely we can find a space for our car. As he stated earlier in the essay, "We need to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible." Constraints that apply to all protect us from each other's selfishness and allow us to live in groups.

According to Hardin, social change is possible. He briefly traces how humans have relinquished certain liberties in the past and used coercion to avoid the tragedy of the commons. Throughout history people have found ways to protect resources, such as designating private property and legislating hunting, fishing, and farming. As cities became densely populated, coercive agreements prohibited throwing domestic waste into the streets. Once agreements are in place, Hardin states, people adapt to new norms as if they had always been present. He insists the way to "preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed."


"The Tragedy of the Commons" is an argumentative essay. Building on Thomas Malthus's 1798 theories, Garrett Hardin stresses the urgency of curbing population growth and suggests how it might be done.

Socratic Method

Hardin develops his thesis through a series of questions and answers that ultimately lead to his intended conclusion. He poses a question, states the common wisdom, and then systematically challenges the components and definitions supporting that belief. This resembles the Socratic method, which was used by Greek philosophers in the fourth century BCE. To use the Socratic method, the sage would ask a series of probing questions that guided the pupil to see the discrepancies and inconsistencies in his belief, and this would then lead the pupil to a solid, logical conclusion.

Similarly, Hardin uses a series of questions that lead the reader to conclude there is no alternative to limiting breeding. Hardin asks: Is ours a finite world? Can we meet the goal of "the greatest good for the greatest number"? What is "good"? One by one, he deflates beliefs technology, infinite resources, space colonization, or market forces can support a growing population. After providing an explanation of the tragedy of the commons and establishing the need to reduce breeding, he returns to the question-answer format. He asks: If we must limit family size, how do we achieve this? He again sequentially dismisses the use of laws, guilt, and social conscience before reaching his goal, which is convincing us of the need for coercion in limiting offspring.


Hardin's paper was published in Science magazine, a well-established academic journal established in 1880. Unlike popular science magazines for the general public or specialized scientific journals, Science's audience tends to be intellectuals interested in new concepts and research directions across a range of scientific disciplines.

Throughout the article Hardin demonstrates a broad range of knowledge and draws from a variety of fields, including economics, mathematics, politics, psychology, and philosophy. He cites Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and Georg Hegel, as well as contemporary authorities to bolster each point with credible sources.

That he is writing for an intellectual audience is reflected in his casual references to scholarly works in varied fields of study. He assumes his readers have his own depth and breadth of knowledge. For example, Harding refers to a "theory of partial differential equations" with no further explanation of the theory. Hardin assumes his readers are familiar with these concepts or they will take time to access the original sources. Most of these documents are cited in his list of references, but not all.

In contrast to how he gives cursory mention of those whose ideas support him, he takes pains to explain ideas he hopes to dismiss. For example, he explains Adam Smith's theory self-motivated "decisions reached individually will ... be the best decisions for an entire society." This directly challenges Hardin's theory of the commons, and Hardin provides detail to point out an inconsistency in Smith's argument. Similarly, Hardin provides details about the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights before dismissing its validity.

Although this essay was published in Science, it is highly subjective. His position on overpopulation is strongly worded. He uses the word breeding, a term mainly used for animals like dogs and cattle, to refer to human procreation and childbearing. He asserts people who try to find technical solutions are trying to avoid the "evils" of overpopulation. He wants to "exorcize the spirit of Adam Smith." Evil and exorcism are strong words that evoke a sense of ultimate wrongdoing. Throughout the essay, overpopulation is tagged with other words with negative connotations, such as tragedy, misery, and ruin.

Definition of "Commons"

Hardin draws on the image of a communal pasture shared by several herdsmen who individually decide it is in their own best interest to graze more and more cattle. With all the additional cattle, the pasture becomes overgrazed and loses its value to the community. The pasture in this case is the "commons" and a metaphor for any shared resource destroyed by overuse and individual greed.

Hardin leaves it to readers, however, to define what constitutes a commons in the world today. He gives examples of leased land, parking spaces on a city street, oceans and sea life, national parks, air and water, and even the shared airwaves and sight lines, with uninvited radios blaring and road signs disturbing our landscapes. If all of these are commons, what is not? He implies mutual coercions should be set for almost every aspect of community life.

His examples suggest the commons can be exploited by individuals, industries, regions, and nations competing for resources and power, which returns us to the essay's opening image of two countries facing off with nuclear weapons. The commons may be the field of influence on the world stage or a river flowing between countries. However, ownership of private property blurs the lines. One can claim the right to foul the bank of the river that abuts the person's property without thinking of the river as a commons.


Hardin makes a point of saying the morality of an action should be judged in light of the circumstances. He cites the situation in which a pioneer in the American West could shoot a bison without significant damage to the herd. However, as the human population reached a critical mass, bison nearly became extinct. Some commons, like the bison, can be revived. On the other hand, some cannot. We may be nearing a point of no return with climate change and biodiversity. When a species has been extinguished, the ecological system is altered and often cannot be restored. At what point does the use of a commons become a tragedy? What is the optimal time to intervene?

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