Sometimes in order to understand New Theories, we must read about some older ones to give us more savvy.  So, the tragedy of the commons is an older theory.

The tragedy of the commons is a term used in soft science to describe in situ in a shared resource system where users act in their own self interest against the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that wealth through their collective action.

Here are Eight forms of the crises:

  1. Grand Banks fisheries  (off Newfoundland)
  2. Bluefin Tuna
  3. Passenger pigeons
  4. Ocean plastic zones (5 major ones- Indian, N and S Pacific, N and S Atlantic; the  Caribbean Sea and Indonesia also have plastic.)
  5. Earth’s atmosphere
  6. Gulf of Mexico dead zone
  7. Traffic gridlock
  8. Groundwater in dry areas

Source: Google


Garrett Hardin in 1968 describes how shared enviro wealth is overused and depleted. He compared it to a common grazing pasture.  In this scene, everyone with rights to the pasture grazes as many animals as possible, acting in self interest for the greatest short term personal gain. Finally, they use up all the grass; so that the shared resource is depleted and no longer useful.  Source:  Hardin, G (1968). “The Tragedy of the Commons” (PDF). Science. 162 (3859): 1243–1248.

see also https://www.dummies.com/education/science/environmental-science/ten-real-life-examples-of-the-tragedy-of-the-commons/  by Alecia M. Spooner

British economist William Forster Lloyd used an example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a “common”) in the British Isles.  Source:  Lloyd, William Forster (1833). Two lectures on the checks to population. England: Oxford University.

The Context

In a modern context, commons means any shared and unchecked wealth such as atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, or an office fridge.

The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is often linked with sustainable dev, meshing money growth and enviro protection, as well as in the debate on global warming. It has also been used to look at effects in the fields of econ, evolutionary psych, anthro, game theory, politics, taxation and sociology.

Although commons have been known to fail due to overuse many times people with access to that wealth co-operate or regulate to use it carefully.

The Wording

The figure of speech illustrates the idea that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource reduces it through over exploitation.  Because the benefits of exploitation accrue to persons or groups, each of whom is motivated to max the use of the resource to the point that they are reliant on it.  So, the costs of the exploitation are borne by all those who have access. In turn this causes demand for the wealth to go up, causing a snowball until the wealth fails (even if it has a way to recover).

So, the rate at which depletion of the resource happens depends on three things: 1) the number of users that consume the common in question, 2) how much consumption their uses have 3) and the strength of the common.

There is a concept called the “tragedy of the fishers”, because fishing a lot near breeding time could cause stocks to go down.

Source:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

More Examples

More kinds (some known by Hardin) of tragedies include:

  1. Clearing rainforest for ag use in southern Mexico
  2. Earth ecology
  3. Population growth
  4. Air, whether  air polluted by emissions and cars, etc., or indoor air
  5. Water – Water pollution; crisis of over-extraction of groundwater and loss of water due to overirrigation
  6. Forests – Logging of old growth forest and slash and burn
  7. Energy and climate –Residue of mining and drilling, Burning of fossil fuels causing global warming
  8. Animals – Habitat loss and poaching leading to mass extinction
  9. Human and wildlife at odds
  10. Antibiotics – Antibiotic Resistance. Misuse of antibiotics anywhere in the world will in the end result in resistance developing at a faster rate. The resulting antibiotic resistance has spread to other bacteria and other regions, hurting or destroying the Antibiotic Commons that is shared on a worldwide basis.  Source:  Flockers, Small (15 January 2016). “Small Flock Poultry Farmers of Canada: MCR-1: Tragedy of the Commons for Antibiotics

Comedy of the commons

In some cases, exploiting a resource more may be a good thing. Carol M. Rose, in a 1986 article, discussed the notion of the “comedy of the commons”, where public property displays “increasing returns to scale” in usage (hence the phrase “the more the merrier”), in that the more people use the wealth, the higher the plus to each one. Rose cites as examples commerce and group play.  So according to Rose, public resources that are “comedic” may suffer from under investment rather than over usage.
Source:  Rose, Carol M. (1986). “The Comedy of the Commons: Commerce, Custom, and Inherently Public Property“. Faculty Scholarship Series, Yale Law School. Paper 1828.


In conclusion, the tragedy of the commons concept helps us savvy many problems facing those truly wanting to help the enviro today.

Some Others:

  1. Prisoner’s Dilemma
  2. Somebody Else’s Problem
  3. Stone Soup
  4. Not in My Backyard (NIMBy) (Comm)
  5. Externality
  6. Tragedy of the Fishers
  7. Common Good
  8. The More the Merrier
  9. Comedy of the Commons
  10. Self Interest
  11. “You’ve gotta eat and I’ve gotta eat”
  12. Snowball effect


“One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning.”  —  James Russell Lowell

There are certain commons that connect us all to each other — air, water, soil —  and what we have universally found time and time again is if you contaminate any of those commons, it gets in everything.” —  Sherri A. Mason, PhD., Chair, Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences, The State University of New York at Fredonia

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Stephen Saunders

Executive Director, Long Term Economy | Member, LTE International Board | Internal Auditor

Stephen Saunders has 25 posts and counting. See all posts by Stephen Saunders

Stephen Saunders

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