Tragedy of the commons Overpopulation, Resource Depletion & Environmental Impact

By: Flaka Ismaili    February 22, 2022

Hardin’s theory depicts humans as individuals driven to take advantage of opportunities that benefit themselves, even at the expense of their community. It assumes that most people will not make sacrifices for the welfare of their neighbors; absent coercion, most humans will not engage in cooperative, collective action for the good of all. Some critics of Hardin’s theory object to it on the basis of this unflattering, and arguably inaccurate, portrait of human nature. While linked monetarily, the eurozone countries were not bound by a common fiscal policy. So long as its value was ensured, eurozone countries and their populations could borrow at low rates and expand both private and government expenditures.

In his view, people motivated by conscience to forego their individual benefit for the sake of the group are quickly overwhelmed by free riders who will gladly take advantage of them. No one owns the fish that swim in the sea; commercial fishing operations from all over the world are free to exploit this common resource. In an unregulated environment, each commercial fishing fleet is incentivized to catch as many fish as it can sell to maximize profits. By the inexorable logic of the tragedy of the commons, more and more fishing fleets catch more and more fish until whole species are decimated and underwater ecosystems collapse. In our modern, interconnected world, the actions in one domain often have unforeseen consequences in another.

Governments and economists have looked at this phenomenon from different angles, whether that was treating it as a market failure or a game theory puzzle. As a consequence of these different perspectives, different solutions have been generated to address and fix the tragedy. Governmental regulatory mechanisms (e.g., quotas and property rights) and collective agreements are only some of the most commonly used mechanisms which enable the more sustained consumption and preservation of the commons. Coffee consumption, traffic congestion, fast fashion or groundwater use are all good examples of the Tragedy of the Commons in real-life scenarios. However, in later papers, Hardin explains that taxpayers’ money funds may also be considered a common good. He explains that in the savings and loans (S&L) crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, depositors (i.e., people keeping their money in banks) worried they would not get their money back.

  1. At stake in these problems, inevitably, is a trade-off between the freedom of the few and the well-being of the many.
  2. So overfishing salmon and tuna may have an eventual impact on animals such as sharks, seals, and polar bears.
  3. Thus, exploitation of workers is a horrific trope within the fast fashion industry.
  4. For example, tax evasion leads to less public funding, which might result in less investment in sustainable technologies or public health, contributing indirectly to other tragedies like environmental degradation or antibiotic resistance.

However, with each passing season, the amount of cod deteriorated and by the 1990s, the fishing industry in the region collapsed because there wasn’t enough fish to go around. These fishermen thought logically, but not collectively, which led to their downfall. First posited in 1968 by American ecologist Garret Hardin, the Tragedy of the Commons describes a situation where shared environmental resources are overused and exploited, and eventually depleted, tragedy of commons definition posing risks to everyone involved. Hardin argues that to prevent this, there should be some restrictions to the amount of usage, for example, property rights must be affixed. Institutional and technological factors play a role in the rivalry and excludability of a good. Societies have developed methods of dividing and enforcing exclusive rights to economic goods and natural resources or punishing those who over-consume common resources.

If everyone thinks like you and adds an extra cow, soon the pasture, which everyone depends upon, gets overgrazed. The grass dies, the soil erodes, and before you know it, that shared land isn’t suitable for any cow. In traffic-clogged cities, a common response to congestion has been to build new highways or add additional lanes to existing roads. Inevitably, however, the city’s expanded system of thoroughfares becomes just as congested as before.

Rational Self-Interest: Why Individuals Act in Their Own Best Interest

Injustice is preferable to total ruin.” Of course, Hardin was wrong—not in identifying the underlying source of the tragedy of the commons but in predicting its solution. However, if many fishermen have this same motive, then it can lead to fish stocks being depleted as fish are caught at a faster rate than they are replenished. The tragedy of the commons theory assumes that when making decisions, people take the course of action that maximises their own utility. However, if many people seek to do this, the net effect may be to deplete a resource making everyone worse off in the long run. Global warming is arguably a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons theory. For centuries, individuals, companies, and societies around the world have been operating plants, driving cars, and using chemicals that have a serious impact on the ozone layer.

His article wasn’t the first to discuss the issue, but it made a splash because it put a catchy name to a problem that people already kind of knew about but hadn’t really focused on. As stated by Garrett Hardin, the alternative to the losses of the commons may be so “horrifying” that some agreement among the eurozone countries is ultimately reached. In the case of the euro, the current crisis may lead to greater efforts to protect the currency.

What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)?

Hardin considered that private ownership of resources provided a sense of ownership and responsibility for them on the part of the owner, and therefore would lead to them being preserved in a better way than under a public ownership scheme. Garrett Hardin was an ecologist who got people talking about how we treat shared resources. Back in 1968, he published an article called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which had a huge impact on the way people thought about economics, environment, and society. With quotas, governments may limit the number of fish you are allowed to catch every month. Failing to stick to the quota would result in a fine that no fisherman would want to incur.

The tragedy of the commons is often brought up when people discuss environmental issues. For example, in fishing, if fishing provides an income, then each fisher would have his or her own best interest in mind and try to catch as many fish as possible even if all the other fishers are doing the same thing. As this behavior continues, the shared resource (the fish) is eventually depleted and the group as a whole (the global population) suffers. Published in 1968 by Garret Hardin, this theory states that individuals acting rationally and independently according to their own self-interest will deplete a shared resource, even if it is contrary to the best interest of the group. The individual farmers in our story were acting rationally and independently for themselves, because for them, it was beneficial to bring as many cattle as possible to the free grazing area.

This shows that the commons may actually be an opportunity if it is governed adhering to principles that provide efficiency and foster community engagement, rather than a tragedy. Taking this one step further, Ian Angus argued that Hardin had absolutely no evidence for his conclusion that humans are unable to change their behavior even in the face of certain disaster. Like Agrawal and Ostrom, he argues that “a community that shares fields and forests has a strong incentive to protect them to the best of its ability, even if that means not maximizing current production” (Angus, 2008). The theory of Tragedy of the Commons has been incredibly influential in many different disciplines. Given it was developed in 1968 by Hardin, a man well known for his work in ecology and natural selection, it is worth exploring its relevance in this decade. Hardin’s model assumes that individuals are short-term, self-interested “rational” actors, seeking to maximize their own gains.

Tragedy of the Commons

As a non-profit, it survives on a network of people contributing to maintain a knowledgebase without expectation of direct compensation. This digital resource will deplete as Wikipedia may only survive if it is contributed to and used as a commons. The motivation for individuals to contribute is reflective of the theory because, if humans act in their own immediate interest and no longer participate, then the resource becomes misinformed or depleted.

Hardin’s theory of the commons has implications beyond ecological concerns to a variety of economic issues. While Hardin applied his theory to natural resources, the dilemma is equally applicable with respect to man-made resources. Economics and law professors have explored the extension of Hardin’s theory to Infrastructure Commons and Knowledge Commons (Frischmann et al., 2019). Hardin would’ve said that individual users use highways in a manner that maximizes their gain but depreciates the highway, depleting the shared resource. These authors argued that commerce generates social value when we visit friends and family and generates economic value as buyers and sellers exchange goods and services.

Clearly, advertising and purchasing items in fast fashion has more of an impact then we initially realize. To grow as a society and be better neighbors to poor countries around us, we should strive to limit our consumption of fast fashion. If one individual fisherman holds back on his catch to try and preserve overall fish stocks, it may prove futile because many other fishermen continue to catch as much as possible. The net result is that fisherman don’t have any incentive to hold back, so they might as well try and catch as much as possible.

Some may argue that this will test the role and practicality of nation-states, leading to a redefinition of international governance. Further, it may lead some to question the role of supranational governments, such as the UN or the World Trade Organization; as resources become more limited, some may argue that managing the commons may not have a solution at all. Each country can only manage and protect the ocean resources along its coastlines, leaving the shared common space beyond any particular jurisdiction vulnerable to pollution. This has led to obscene amounts of ocean pollution, as seen in garbage patches that accumulate in the centre of circular currents, for example. This will affect everyone as these pollutants cycle through the marine food chain, and then humans as we consume fish.

Air Pollution

However, this co-operation is more difficult for an international resource like fishing in the north sea. In this case, the multi-national level fishing makes it more difficult to reach an agreement. The tragedy of the commons is a situation where there is overconsumption of a particular product/service because rational individual decisions lead to an outcome that is damaging to the overall social welfare. Inés Luque has a Masters degree in Management Science from University College London. During high school, she developed a strong interest in Economics, leading her to win the national Economics prize in her country of nationality, Spain.

Her expertise is in the areas of microeconomics, game theory and design of incentives. Inés is passionate about the publishing industry and is currently working in the consulting department of the Financial Times in London. Goods are understood as products or services that individuals can purchase or sell.