Tragedy of the commons

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The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen. This dilemma was first described in an influential article titled "The Tragedy of the Commons," written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.[1]

Hardin's Commons Theory is frequently cited to support the notion of sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection, and has had an effect on numerous current issues, including the debate over global warming.

Central to Hardin's article is an example (first sketched in an 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd) of a hypothetical and simplified situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin's example, it is in each herder's interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the quality of the common is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result, through over grazing. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.

A similar dilemma of the commons had previously been discussed by agrarian reformers since the 18th century.[2] Hardin's predecessors used the alleged tragedy, as well as a variety of examples from the Greek Classics, to justify the enclosure movement. German historian Joachim Radkau sees Garrett Hardin's writings as having a different aim in that Hardin asks for a strict management of common goods via increased government involvement or/and international regulation bodies.[2]

Hardin's work has been criticised on the grounds of historical inaccuracy, and for failing to distinguish between common property and open access resources. Subsequent work by Elinor Ostrom and others suggest that using Hardin's work to argue for privatization of resources is an "overstatement" of the case.[3][4] Nonetheless, Ostrom recognizes that there are real problems, and even limited situations where the tragedy of the commons applies to real-world resource management.[5]


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