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What is the Tragedy of the Commons?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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"The Tragedy of the Commons" is a term used to describe what happens to common resources as a result of human greed. It was first coined in an article in Science in 1968 by Garrett Hardin. The commons dilemma was seen long before Hardin, but he brought widespread attention to it and described it in a common-sense fashion that made it easily accessible.

At its core, the Tragedy of the Commons demonstrates that, in an situation where the consequences of a course of action are shared among a collective, while the benefits are reaped by an individual or single group within the collective, people will tend to take actions that in the long term are detrimental to the group as a whole. This is a tragedy because, in seeking their own personal gain, the members of the group actually ultimately hurt themselves.

The example Hardin uses to illustrate the Tragedy of the Commons is of a group of ranchers and a shared land area. Each farmer is assumed to be keeping their own cattle on the land, from which they yield a personal profit, but the land is assumed to be collectively shared, or leased from a government. Each additional head of cattle has a cost and a gain associated with it: the cost is in land use and wear on the land, while the gain has to do with the profit that can be reaped from that cattle. The trick is, when a rancher adds a cow to his herd, he gains all the benefit of the extra cow, while sharing only a small portion of the cost in terms of land use.

It is therefore rational, in a strict short-sighted view, for a rancher to try to increase his herd as much as he can. And in fact, that view could work out quite well if only one rancher were to take it. But, since it is a rational course of action, we can assume all of the ranchers will pursue it, at which point the land will be degraded such that no cattle can use it, and all will lose. This is the Tragedy of the Commons, the loss of common space through individual pursuit of a rational course of action. Since actions are not taken in a vacuum, what seems like a smart strategy is in fact wrong-headed.

The Tragedy of the Commons can be applied to any sort of common resource, and has been used to describe a number of different situations. Fisheries are one of the most obvious victims, where a single fisherman might be able to fish as much as he or she wished without reaching the limit of a seemingly infinite resource. With tens of thousands of fishermen all pursuing the same strategy, however, the fisheries become depleted and there are no fish for anyone.

The term can also be used when describing national parks, river use, air quality, oil, forests, and even things such as radio frequencies. It is an important theory for designing resource usage plans, as its fundamental assumption about how rational humans can act in a way to bring about destruction of their resource gives a reason to set artificial limitations on usage through governmental policy.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By serenesurface — On Mar 08, 2013

I think that the Tragedy of the Commons is more about over-population. It's not such a problem in large countries like ours where population rates are not very high. I imagine it's more of an issue in places like India and China where population rates are very high which leads to overcrowding in cities despite the size of the country.

I also think that it's an issue of culture. I don't believe that everyone in the world is inherently selfish and only interested in personal gain. The Japanese, for example, tend to value the common benefit over individual benefit in many situations. It would be interesting to find out if the Tragedy of the Commons is a problem there.

By literally45 — On Mar 07, 2013

@sunshine31-- Government can take over and determine how public land will be used, but what about water and air? Aside from passing laws against pollution and over-fishing, can the government do anything?

By stoneMason — On Mar 06, 2013

Since no natural human resource on earth is unlimited, the tragedy of commons is bound to come true with all resources. One day we will not have forests, clean water or clean air.

The only way we could avoid it was if people started acting in accordance with the common benefit rather than their personal benefit. I agree with Hardin that this is not possible because people will always seek personal gain over common gain. This is just the natural human tendency. We will all pay for this inherent selfishness when the earth runs out of natural resources that we need to live.

By Crispety — On Dec 30, 2010

Sunshine31-What I don’t understand is how people can be so careless in natural parks in California and just dump their cigarettes on the ground and start brush fires.

I guess that this is a way to define tragedy of the commons. People really do not appreciate what they have not paid for. This is true because I had to pay my way through college and I really do appreciate my college degree more because I had to pay for and had a vested interest in getting the degree.

By sunshine31 — On Dec 28, 2010

The tragedy of the commons definitions relates to the article written by Garret Hardin called Tragedy of the Commons. In the tragedy of the commons essay he argues that people will exploit public land for their own misuse or greed.

He states that the definition of tragedy of the commons is that people will become selfish due to their own greed or carelessness and either the government has to take over the use of the public land or the land has to be purchased by a private owner.

He feels that only when one has a stake in this land will they take proper care of it.

For example, many fishermen disrupt ecosystems in order to catch fish and generate sales. The body of water that the fisherman fishes off of is considered public waters however; it is this type of destruction that Garret Hardin refers to when he discusses the tragedy of the commons fisheries.

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