Tragedy of The Commons

Saumya Soni

June 28, 2021

A controversial ecologist name Garrett Hardin penned the influential paper “The tragedy of the commons.” Hardin’s tragedy of the commons has had profound impacts on history and continues to play a crucial role in the continued environmental degradation present today. He described the concept as a situation in which individuals within a shared-resource system act according to their own self-interest, consequently making decisions contrary to the common good of others. Ultimately this leads to the depletion of that same shared resource, through collective activities.

For an example of this theory consider a simple pasture, or a common land where anyone may let their cattle graze. Any rational, self-interested person wants to increase their livelihood. So each adds to their herd, one more animal at a time, until the common land can’t sustain any more cows. The pasture is overgrazed and all of the livestock die.

But what does this have to do with the environment and why should we worry about it: Currently, the largest tragedy of the commons is climate change. A growing number of people see climate change as a perfect example of Hardin’s theory. In this situation, the earth’s atmosphere can be regarded as the “commons” of the future or the shared resource. Many climate change activists over history have taken different approaches to addressing this environmental catastrophe as a tragedy of the commons.

In today’s world, our climate is probably one of the best instance of a resource that is exploited for individual gain. The lack of “enforceable liability”, or to put it in other words; the state of being legally responsible for something allows individuals to unload the cost of their actions onto a multitude of third parties.

In late 2012, when the first stage of the Kyoto Protocol was adopted after years of lazy and dismissive negotiations between governments came to an end, greenhouse emissions had increased by about 60% from 1990 levels as against the target of reducing emissions by 5%. Even when countries are determined to take part in collective conservation efforts, they can simply withdraw out again when they want to. Today, majority of the countries remain far from achieving the level of emission cuts obligated to stay within the two degree threshold. And Given the development endeavours of modern society and the energy supplies required to maintain current living standards, these sustainable changes seem highly implausible.

The real question is how people remain complacent and negligent in the face of such a perilous threat, with imminent catastrophic repercussions. Unfortunately, like most commons that are indivisible, the atmosphere too is consigned to over-exploitation and getting drained. There is ground for pessimism in the near future as countries pursue their narrow interests. But in the medium term, a solution is likely only through international cooperation and coordination.

Here are some ways people and governments can help overcome the tragedy of the commons: taking personal actions, such as changing our mindset and being conscious of our consumptions is key. Additionally, possible solutions include firm government regulation or direct control of a common-pool resource. Regulating consumption and use, or legally excluding some individuals, can reduce over-consumption. Furthermore, government investments in managing, protecting resources as well as renewal of the resource can help prevent it’s depletion.

As the global population soars and demand for resources increases, this follows the drawbacks of the Commons to become more evident. Greenhouse gas emissions are only one part of this extremely diverse hurdle that can be applied to the tragedy of the commons. Plenty of natural resources are subject to over-exploitation and, eventually, exhaustion. When we talk about escaping the tragedy; will the prioritization of individual development and greed over global cooperation, be the true destruction of mankind?