Tragedy Of The Commons

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  People living in groups(societies) and sharing resources(commons) could either act according to their self-interests or seek the common good. This idea was first discussed in a pamphlet published in 1883 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd. He described a phenomenon called “Tragedy Of The Commons” according to which when people have open access to a resource they often are self-seeking and driven by their own interests.

  Individuals tend to pit short-term self-interests against the common good and this ends badly for everyone, resulting in the over-exploitation of shared limited resources.

  Unhampered access to resources gives individuals the opportunity to gratify their growing needs while spreading all the negative effects across the population.

  The commons are the resources accessible to all members of a society, those resources are owned and exploited collectively by all individuals. The traditional definition refers mainly to natural resources like clean air, water, living space, fishing areas, grazing land, forests, and non-renewable energy sources.

  Lloyd’s pamphlet included a hypothetical example of over-grazing of cattle in village common areas in England and Ireland, supposing that herders are sharing a common parcel of land on which they were each allowed to let their cows graze, He assumes that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common land, overgrazing could result. For each additional animal, a herder could receive additional short-term benefits, while the whole group shared the resulting damage to the commons in the long term. If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.

Garrett Hardin’s article:

  In 1968, the American ecologist Garrett Hardin revived this concept in his article “The Tragedy of the Commons” published in the Science Magazine. He tried to describe what happens when large populations share a limited resource.

He pointed out the hassle of people behaving in rational self-interest by claiming that if all individuals in a group used common assets for their personal benefit and without regard for others, all assets might nonetheless subsequently be depleted.

In the context of avoiding the over-exploitation of shared resources, Hardin suggested that “freedom” completes the tragedy of the commons as people having free uncontrolled access to resources is at the core of this dilemma. 

Hardin calls for recognizing resources as commons in the first place and that they require actual management instead of just irrational unrestrained exploitation.

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Examples of The Tragedy Of The commons:

  • Grand Banks: The Grand Banks of Newfoundland (Canadian province) are one of the world’s richest fishing grounds, for centuries, it was described as home to an endless supply of cod fish. Between the 1960s and 1970s, this region has known very large seasons with huge catches of cod due to the remarkable development of fishing technologies. In the absence of regulation and management, the fish population dropped and the fishing industry in Grand Banks collapsed. The region still hasn’t recovered from this catastrophe and the fish population is still low, some scientists doubt the Grand Banks ecosystem will ever recover.
  • Marine Plastic Pollution: the consumption of plastic products has been booming over the past few decades since they are cheaper and more comfortable and convenient to use, but people are so engrossed in the advantages of plastic products that they neglect another side that’s threatening life on our planet. According to, marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species. The impacts include fatalities as a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement.
  • Groundwater: more than 80 percent of the water available to agricultural, domestic, and industrial users is withdrawn from groundwater resources annually, but unfortunately this valuable resource is being depleted and overused. The amount of water drawn from underground aquifers is massively increasing each year to meet the needs of the growing population. Today, many countries around the world are facing extremely high levels of water stress manifested in water shortages and destruction of the renewable water resource.
  •  overuse of antibiotics: antibiotics are used to treat common illnesses and to promote growth in livestock, but their excessive use for unnecessary reasons has led to weakening the immune system and the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have enormous potential for harm and poses a major threat to global health.

  The tragedy of the commons shows how human selfishness and egocentric decisions can lead to dramatically dangerous consequences minacious for life on earth, and that can only be avoided if people get together and come up with actual strategies to optimally manage our limited resources and work toward sustainable development.


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