The Tragedy of the Commons

February 18, 2020

In Aristotle’s words, “What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care.” His words hold a valuable lesson and essentially sums up the phenomenon known as the tragedy of the commons, which is a social dilemma explored by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. In order to further explore his theory, Hardin came up with an analogy to explain his idea to others. Take a second to imagine that you lived in a small village and in this small village, you and the other members depend on a shared grazing pasture to put food on your table. This shared piece of land is called the commons and the commons is able to support exactly one hundred cows. This means that in order for the whole village to have a maximum supply of food, each of the hundred farmers would need to supply one cattle to the commons. However, if each farmer decides to squeeze in one extra cow for the sake of doubling their family's food supply, that would quickly result in two hundred cows overgrazing on the common land. Soon, the land would die out along with the cows, and following them, the farmers themselves. This is one classic example of how one selfish act can lead to the depletion of a shared resource. 


Along with overgrazing on land, the tragedy of the commons explains why many of our social and environmental issues like fishing land, overpopulation, and pollution are occurring today. Similar to the domino effect, these examples show how one’s short term interest can trigger a chain of reactions from others causing them to share their selfish behaviours and go against the common good. That not only affects them but also everyone else around them. It is within our human nature to be selfish, but when does benefiting oneself go as far as to harm the entire population?  


As with many ongoing issues happening around the world, there seems to be a constant struggle between man and nature. Inevitably, that is also a struggle against man and himself, since we are a part of nature. In a way, we’ve reached the limits of the Earth and have exhausted our planet’s resources to the point where it has nothing left to offer. Think of it this way: an apple tree will only provide you with delicious apples if you water it everyday and help it stay healthy. However, in our case, we’ve been selfishly picking at Earth’s fruit for so long that we’ve forgotten to spend time to nourish our planet and help it grow. Consequently, we are now faced with many global issues such as pollution, which is a result of the tragedy of the commons. Although putting harmful toxins and greenhouse gases in the air through mining and power plants may benefit consumers and its owners, the cost of these short term benefits may be a lifetime of polluted air which affects current and future generations. Other examples of the tragedy of the commons include littering. Since people don’t properly throw away their trash, this has an impact on everyone’s parks, oceans and roadways. Even traffic jams in major cities are a reflection of this phenomenon. While driving, everyone has their own mindset and are watching out for themselves. However, while everyone is frustrated and in a hurry to get to work or school, their cars are constantly releasing pollutants into the air which adds to climate change and greatly affects Earth’s atmosphere. 


However, while Hardin’s theory has greatly impacted modern environmentalism and his views have been taught worldwide, we must not ignore the fact that he was also racist, nativist, eugenicist, and an Islamophobe whose writings and political activism inspired the many anti-immigrant hatred campaigns we see happening today. Hardin was not trying to present us with a scientific case but instead was trying to spread his views to justify racial discrimination. In fact, Hardin even got the history of his own theory wrong. In the past, shared resources were well regulated by local institutions and were not left for people to use up all of its resources. We, as a civilization, have proven Hardin wrong because we’ve shown that we are capable of escaping the tragedy of the commons and entering the freedom of the commons by showing that we are able to care for our shared environment. Unlike Hardin’s insight, we are not the culprit of many of our biggest global issues. But instead, our future was stolen by powerful fossil fuel producing companies that are only interested in making money. Hadn’t it been for them, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now, thinking about our polluted future. We have been manipulated into ruining our own future and are now trapped in an economy that sees fossil fuel consumption as a necessity rather than an unhealthy addiction. Instead of applauding Hardin for his mindless theory and continue blaming ourselves for our selfish desires, we should replace his flawed vision with a vision that speaks to everyone. A vision where we do not continue writing a tragedy but instead continue writing our way to victory. +


Mildenberger, Matto. “The tragedy of the tragedy of the commons.” Scientific American, 23 Apr. 2019,     

      Accessed Feb. 2020


Battersby, Stephen. “Can humankind escape the tragedy of the commons?.” PNAS, 3, Jan. 

     2017, Accessed   Feb. 2020


Chappelow, Jim. “Tragedy of the commons.” Investopedia, 10, May. 2019, 

     Accessed Feb. 2020



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