The Tragedy of the Commons | Study Guide

Garrett Hardin

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The Tragedy of the Commons | 10 Things You Didn't Know


In his famous article "The Tragedy of the Commons," ecologist Garrett Hardin explains a chronic and persistent problem that makes the concept of public spaces and goods unworkable in human society. First published in Science magazine in 1968, Hardin's article describes the seemingly insurmountable dilemma of exploitation of "the commons"—or any shared resource. Hardin notes that since these resources are open to all and thus essentially unregulated, people will overuse or take from them until there is nothing left.

Hardin's thesis regarding this "tragedy" has sparked numerous debates about the reality of public goods and lands as a successful, shared commodity. Numerous case studies—from the open grazing lands of the American West to a box of doughnuts at an office party—can be used to illustrate his point. "The Tragedy of the Commons" has, most notably, been used as an argument against socialism, a political philosophy that relies heavily on the public availability of assets. Since Hardin's article first appeared, the phrase "tragedy of the commons" has been used frequently to introduce the philosophical concept of shared goods and the problems inherent to open, communal resources.

1. Hardin was inspired by a pamphlet on "The Tragedy of the Commons" that focused on cattle in Britain.

The idea of the tragedy of the commons wasn't entirely original to Hardin. A pamphlet written by mathematician William F. Lloyd more than a century earlier in 1833 first proposed the concept. The pamphlet, which had the same name as Hardin's article, used the English countryside as a scenario to explain problems that arise with shared resources. Lloyd described how British farmers sharing a communal pasture would each instinctively try to maximize the number of cattle they had to turn a greater profit. Since every farmer would theoretically exploit the land to the greatest extent, the pasture would be barren and useless very quickly. Although Hardin's article revitalized the concept of the tragedy of the commons in the modern era—and popularized the theory in academia—Lloyd's pamphlet first proposed the theory and gave it its name.

2. The concept of "The Tragedy of the Commons" dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Before Hardin or Lloyd commented on the tragedy of the commons as a philosophical concept, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote of problems concerning public land and resources. In his treatise Politics, the famous philosopher mentioned how shared assets within a community often led to exploitation and mismanagement. Aristotle explained that that which is "common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest."

3. Hardin admitted that he could have improved his article by adding one word to the title.

Although "The Tragedy of the Commons" was written to demonstrate how having common resources in a community doesn't work, Hardin later admitted that he should have slightly amended the article's title. He noted that, in fairness, he should have added the word "unregulated" or "unmanaged" in order to distinguish his theory from cases in which properly controlled public means can be maintained. Hardin explained:

To judge from the critical literature, the weightiest mistake in my synthesizing paper was the omission of the modifying adjective "unmanaged." ... With this modification firmly in place, "The Tragedy of the Commons" is well tailored for further interdisciplinary syntheses.

4. "The Tragedy of the Commons" has been accused of being a tool for right-wing propaganda.

Many critics believe that "The Tragedy of the Commons" has been misquoted and misused to support a right-wing agenda defending large-scale privatization. Hardin's argument has, many times, been quoted or summarized by lobbyists and officials vying to craft policy that allows for the private purchase of public lands. In 2002 the Fraser Institute—a Canadian think tank—rehashed Hardin's thesis to argue for the sell-off of lands controlled communally by indigenous peoples, writing:

[T]hese large amounts of land, with their attendant natural resources, will never yield their maximum benefit to Canada's native people as long as they are held as collective property subject to political management. ...[C]ollective property is the path of poverty, and private property is the path of prosperity.

5. Pope Francis has tried to find a solution to the tragedy of the commons.

Pope Francis has emerged as a supporter of what he calls the "global commons"—space and resources around the world that are available to the public. The pope believes that the protection of these commons is essential to eradicating extreme poverty on a worldwide scale. In a 2015 encyclical, a papal letter sent to all bishops, entitled Laudato si', the pope called on international governing bodies to protect the commons. He specifically vied for the creation of an independent organization to do just that. Addressing the problem of the private sector's power over government, the pope wrote:

The twenty-first century, while maintaining systems of governance inherited from the past, is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation states, chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tends to prevail over the political.

6. Hardin was an advocate of controversial forced sterilization methods.

Although "The Tragedy of the Commons" was met with a great deal of criticism from theorists, other remarks from Hardin have generated much more controversy. Despite having four children, Hardin has advocated for population-control measures, including forced sterilization. He has noted that overpopulation is a contributing factor to the tragedy of the commons and has gone a step further by saying that countries with the largest populations have "adopt[ed] overbreeding as a policy to secure [their] own aggrandizement." Hardin went on to say that "the freedom to breed is intolerable." He once admitted that he used arguments of women's rights to cloak his support of population control measures such as legalized abortion, stating that:

[T]o mention abortion's effect on population growth would be to arouse the suspicion that I was a nasty Nazi.

7. Hardin claimed that denying Ethiopia aid during a famine was the best option.

Hardin made a controversial and heavily ridiculed comment during the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. In line with his belief that overpopulation is the worst thing for a developing society, Hardin advocated for the denial of aid to Ethiopia, claiming that food or monetary aid would only contribute to the nation's unsustainable population. Hardin justified this position, explaining:

Since Ethiopia has far too many people for its resources, if you give food and save lives and thus increase the number of people, you increase suffering and ultimately increase the loss of life.

Hardin has also denounced altruistic and philanthropic pursuits in general, stating that they're dangerous and often do more harm than good. He noted:

There's nothing more dangerous than a shallow-thinking compassionate person. God, he can cause a lot of trouble.

8. Hardin and his wife died in a double suicide.

On September 14, 2003, Hardin and his wife were found dead in their home in Santa Barbara, California. The deaths were ruled a double suicide, which was supported by the fact that both were members of the Hemlock Society—a right-to-die organization. Hardin was 88 at the time of his death, and he and his wife had been in poor health. One of their children, Sharon Clausen, knew that both her parents were supporters of end-of-life decision-making and said simply, "They did what they wanted to do."

9. One scholar rebutted Hardin with an article entitled "The Comedy of the Commons."

In 1986 Carol Rose of Yale Law School released an article in response to Hardin entitled "The Comedy of the Commons." Her thesis was that, in contrast to Hardin's denouncement of shared resources, there were many cases in which the inevitable overuse and exploitation of the commons was a good thing. She cited the example of a public recreational space, in which as more people use it, more people are able to keep themselves in good health through exercise and exposure to the outdoors. She also noted that such space and resources more often suffered from "underinvestment" than harmful exploitation.

10. The tragedy of the commons is often seen in offices—in the shared refrigerator.

One contemporary example of the tragedy of the commons may hit close to home for anyone working in an office. The shared office refrigerator—and those who steal from it—are a perfect illustration of Hardin's thesis in action. Claire Suddath of Businessweek described the problem's relation to Hardin's article, writing:

That's the problem with office thieves—they know the food belongs to someone, but when it's just sitting there in the fridge, they also know that they probably won't be caught if they take it. It's the office version of the tragedy of the commons, a theory developed in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin as a way to explain why shared resources are often ruined. The answer, in short, is that no individual feels responsible for them. Hardin's idea explains why public bathrooms are so gross, why people litter, and, according to his original example, why farmers will let their cows overgraze communal fields. It's a simple, if depressing, facet of human behavior. If I were Hardin, I'd rename the theory People Are Jerks.

Columnists have also noted how the tragedy of the commons relates to other common moments of neglect or exploitation regarding public spaces, such as taking up extra space on public train seating or failing to clean up after a dog at the park.

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