The Tragedy of the Commons: Common Pool Resource Problems and CollectiveAction
October 16, 2012
The Tragedy of the Commons
Hardin’s article part of a wave of enviro literature in 1960s-70s
Can be used to understand many contemporary environmental problems – e.g. marine
pollution, overfishing, climate change, space debris, etc.
-Garrett Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons”
-tragedy of the commons: one of the most important environmental texts in the past 40 years
-possibly the most important environmental text ever
-written in 1968
-Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962)beginnings of that movement (public
-Hardin comes in and says that the commons, historically, have exhibited the personal
characteristics of humans
-human actions are selfish
-humans act for selfish reasons, individuality
-this is a tragedy, he says
-tragedymoral connotation: inevitable reality
-something we can’t stop; something we can’t touch (according to laws of
-Hardin has reputation of these writings
-”Living on a Lifeboat”we shouldn’t give food assistance to poor people and
poor government because we’re essentially promoting bad behaviour
-written 5 years after Tragedy of the Commons
-he sees the problem of overpopulation as so dire
-Tragedy of the Commons
-e.g. dumping in oceans, atmosphere pollution, overfishing, greenhouse gas and global
warming as a result
• Field grows enough grass to support 8 sheep.
• The field is shared by all four shepherds (blue, green, red, purple).
• Each wants to maximize interest by putting as many sheep as he/she can
• Blue puts 3 sheep
• Green puts 3 sheep
• Red puts 2 sheep
• Purple puts 2 sheep
• = 10 sheep. Land then degrades.
The result is a tragedy
‘freedom in the commons brings ruin to all’ ‘freedom is the recognition of necessity’
-Hardin’s thesis: uses a specific hypothetical situation
-imagine an old English village and in this village, there’s a common pasture
-open to all residents there
-any residents there can bring their cattle or sheep and raise them there
-sheep and cattleprivately owned
-but the land is common; publicly owned
-without any enforceable limits, Hardin warned that villagers are expected to continue to
add in cattle for their own personal benefit
-they would do so even though the land would be degraded and everyone would fail as a
-people derive personal benefit and income
-problem: environmental damage occurs when you add more to the land
-the damages are shared in the community
-individual, rational level: makes sense to continue to add until the resource becomes
degraded and less and nothing
-individual rationality leads to collective irrationality
-individual rationality: can’t we rationalize in the long run that in the end, it won’t be a benefit
-John Maynard Keynes: in the long run, we’re dead
-we have to calculate what our neighbours are going through
-what about our future generations?
-you’re not just acting for yourself, you are also betting on what other people do
-at the end, people lose
-individual rationality can lead to bad outcomes (game theory)
-we can’t expect self-constraint
-at the end, believing in good faith = a disaster
-inevitably, however many people will see the great benefit of self-constraint
-concept of free-riding
-accrues the benefits without sacrificing anything themselves
-free ridingHardin thinks it’s inevitable
-people put as little as themselves out there
-free-riders: ruins the game for everyone else
-voluntary self-restraint and agreement will always collapse
-people will say they put one additional sheep..eventually it’ll collapse
-people see they get less than people who free-ride
-solutions: dividing up the commons?
-punishing the free-riders? Banishing them?
-property rights, privatization
-central authority dictating -Hardin: SOLUTION lies in regulation and coercive enforcement
-there needs to be enforceable rules that places the limits
-only way that environmental tragedy can be avoided
-real freedom: recognition of necessity
-it’s not about doing whatever you want
-there must be laws/rules that will dictate how we behave
Hardin’s ‘Lifeboat Ethics’
• Lifeboat with 60-person capacity
• 50 people on board = 10 spots remain
• 100 people struggling in the water
• How many should they bring aboard?
• Hardin extends analogy to international food aid.
• Should rich countries provide food to poor countries?
-lifeboat ethics: written in 1974
-Living on a Lifeboat
-scenario where there’s a lifeboat, riding along seas and there’s a ship collapse
-lifeboat has capacity of 60
-room for 10 people since it only has 50 occupied
-100 people pleading to be a part of 10
-Hardin: we should not let anyone on board
-if we took all 100 = lifeboat will sink and everyone dies
-if we take 10 more, we are decreasing the safety of the rest of 50 passengers
-other course of action: deny 100 people’s opportunity to be safe
-guaranteed for people on board that they’re going to be safe
-Hardin extends this example to international food aid
-he’s counseling countries with food surplus to not be tempted to give food to the
-if they do so, they will replicate a common internationally
-exploited by poor countries
--international countries see no need to develop their economies, to impose population
-we will then have population growth = more demand on food later would
overwhelm developed countries
-developing countries forced to be on their own
-we can do privatizing or nationalizing
-divide pasture and let individuals own
-if we look at international food supplynations would only consume the food they would
be able to produce
-nations should almost be self-reliant and treat their own land as their own
-global population would diminish when the world forces developing countries to find their own
food (without accepting aid) -leave them to their own needs
*it’s cheaper to get Coca-Cola than water*
-Coca-Cola company re-route streams, away from the developing countries
*moral* problem: this is not black and white; it’s grey
-can we have a complete stoppage of international aid?
-is it moral to let someone starve?
-it’s better to have less people on Earth?
The Concept of the Commons
“Aresource domain” with resource units (e.g. English pasture with grass for cattle
to graze on)
Available to multiple users for individual gain (e.g. the high seas)
Resource units of a commons are finite – when it is consumed it is no longer
-Within that resource domain, there are resource units
-these units are what is useful for humans to derive benefit from
-pasture in English village is the resource domain
-resource unit is the sheep/cattle, using that domain
-clumps of grass that sheep/cattle graze upon are the units in the commons, part of the domain
-resource domain: could be physical, geographical space or collectivity of resources (e.g. Fish
-resource unit could be physical object (e.g. trees you are removing from forest, garbage bag,
-commons: accessible to multiple users
-common users can use the commons for their own individual gains
-open access: anyone can use them
-limited access: select few of approved users can use commons
-e.g. Village pasturelimited pastureonly villagers can use it
-open access commons: e.g. international waters (oceansopened access; anyone can use it or be
on them; no one owns the oceans)
-any fishing boats can take fish there
-e.g. outer space – no one owns space
-specific resource units: resource units within commons are finite (limited amounts within a
-once you take from it, another actor can also consume it as well
-e.g. pasture is finite: it can only have so much grass
-cattle eats lump of grass: not available for others to eat -e.g. fish stocks: finite amount of fish; eventually there’ll be 0
-can be replenished over time, but you can overfish and devastate the
-no prospect of long term
-e.g. atmosphere: no country owns
-atmosphere’s ability to absorb pollutants
-limited capacity for atmosphere to do thatcan’t absorb everything we throw up there
-serious environmental consequence
Who Owns the Commons?
Historically, it could be owned by the King, a wealthy landlord. Or it could be un-owned.
What about now?
Who owns the oceans?
Who owns the fish?
Who owns the seabed? Antarctica?
“common heritage of mankind”?
“The province of all mankind”
“beyond the jurisdiction of nations”
-who owns commons?
-in history: commons not owned by everyone
-pasture in English village are most likely to be owned by monarch (king/queen/wealthy
landlord who permitted residents of the village to use it)
-if there is an owner of commons, they set up rules on how to use it, how many
people can use it, how it’s going to be used for, etc.
-oceans: legally, traditionally they fall under res communis (unavailable for exclusive claims)
-e.g. nation can’t claim that ocean
-distinguishes from concept of res nullius: different designation
-”resource that isn’t owned, per say, but available for others to use”
-country can’t go and say they owned the fish; but they can take as many fish as
they can/they want
-once you caught fish = becomes property
-seabed: has a legal status
-different than the oceans
-seabed owned 12 nautical miles beyond the physical limitations and physical end of the
-e.g. Canada owns seabed of 12 nautical miles out in the oceans
-not part of global commons -whole continent ofAntarctica: how do we define its status? who owns that land? Who owns the
-1 half of century: Antarctica controlled by 7 countries:Argentina,Australia, Chile,
France, India, Norway, and UK (don’t need to know that)
-they go in there and tried to assume control over the continent
-they tried to carve out niches ofAntarctica
-eventually, their claims later windled down, especially when WWII arouse
-USSR didn’t recognize those claims
-it’s the common heritage of mankind
-enshrined in treaty in 1959
-all resources found inAntarctica that can be exploited cannot be owned
by a single nation
-ambiguous language in treaty
-agreement (moratorium): on oil, material exploitation inAntarctica
-legal status: so ambiguous; they don’t want any country to have a huge
amount of oil, minerals, gas, etc.
-outer space: global commons
-has some ambiguity
-how do you define outer space? how far does national jurisdiction overstep?
-space between air space and outer space is ambiguous; not accurately defined
-but, we have legal designation that says that 200km up is owned by the nation
-once you are above that, that country doesn’t own it; it becomes a province of
-outer space only became an issue in the half century
-all activities in outer space seen to be done on the basis of equality
-not seen to benefit one nation over another one
-e.g. missions to moon: explicit in legal language; they’re not there to benefit one
country over another
-US can’t harvest mineral they found on moon: against international law to dig up
the moon and get minerals
-at a highpoint
-highest region: atmosphere
-most harmful gases collected
-biggest problems for Earth: how do we manage the global commons of atmosphere?
-Who’s responsibility is it?
-we see degrading of the commons in atmosphere
-difficult to manage
Preventing Environmental Tragedies
Five basic approaches:
1. Voluntary restraint 2. Restrictions/rules
3. Market incentives
4. Divide domains up into sections
5. Socialize the use of the commons
-how do we prevent overgrazing (or overfishing)?
-1. voluntary restraint:
-skepticism of voluntarily restraint (actually doing something to solve problem)
-people agreeing they won’t overuse/overgraze the commons
-difficult to install environmental regimes
-very difficult to get 190+ countries to agree on anything and commit
-only way: to make commitments that are non-binding and countries take what they want
-e.g. UN GeneralAssembly: always adopting resolutions
-known as soft lawthey don’t resemble the laws we have in our country, on