Will shared resources always be misused and overused? Is community ownership of land, forests, and fisheries a guaranteed road to ecological disaster? Is privatization the only way to protect the environment and end Third World poverty? Most economists and development planners will answer “yes” — and for proof they will point to the most influential article ever written on those important questions.
Since its publication in Science in December 1968, “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal. It is also one of the most-quoted: a recent Google search found “about 302,000” results for the phrase “tragedy of the commons.”
For 40 years it has been, in the words of a World Bank Discussion Paper, “the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues” (Bromley and Cernea 1989: 6). It has been used time and again to justify stealing indigenous peoples’ lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations “tradable permits” to pollute the air and water, and much more.
Noted anthropologist Dr. G.N. Appell (1995: 34-5) writes that the article “has been embraced as a sacred text by scholars and professionals in the practice of designing futures for others and imposing their own economic and environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have incomplete understanding and knowledge.”
Like most sacred texts, “The Tragedy of the Commons” is more often cited than read. As we will see, although its title sounds authoritative and scientific, it fell far short of science.
Garrett Hardin hatches a myth
The author of “The Tragedy of the Commons” was Garrett Hardin, a University of California professor who until then was best known as the author of a biology textbook that argued for “control of breeding” of “genetically defective” people (Hardin 1966: 707). In his 1968 essay he argued that communities that share resources inevitably pave the way for their own destruction; instead of wealth for all, there is wealth for none.
He based his argument on a story about the commons in rural England.
(The term “commons” was used in England to refer to the shared pastures, fields, forests, irrigation systems, and other resources that were found in many rural areas until well into the 1800s. Similar communal farming arrangements existed in most of Europe, and they still exist today in various forms around the world, particularly in indigenous communities.)
“Picture a pasture open to all,” Hardin wrote. A herdsmen who wants to expand his personal herd will calculate that the cost of additional grazing (reduced food for all animals, rapid soil depletion) will be divided among all, but he alone will get the benefit of having more cattle to sell.
Inevitably, “the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd.” But every “rational herdsman” will do the same thing, so the commons is soon overstocked and overgrazed to the point where it supports no animals at all.
Hardin used the word “tragedy” as Aristotle did, to refer to a dramatic outcome that is the inevitable but unplanned result of a character’s actions. He called the destruction of the commons through overuse a tragedy not because it is sad, but because it is the inevitable result of shared use of the pasture. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
Where’s the Evidence?
Given the subsequent influence of Hardin’s essay, it’s shocking to realize that he provided no evidence at all to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that the “tragedy” was inevitable — but he didn’t show that it had happened even once.
Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons: self-regulation by the communities involved. One such process was described years earlier in Friedrich Engels’ account of the “mark,” the form taken by commons-based communities in parts of pre-capitalist Germany:
[T]he use of arable and meadowlands was under the supervision and direction of the community. . . .
Just as the share of each member in so much of the mark as was distributed was of equal size, so was his share also in the use of the “common mark.” The nature of this use was determined by the members of the community as a whole. . . .
At fixed times and, if necessary, more frequently, they met in the open air to discuss the affairs of the mark and to sit in judgment upon breaches of regulations and disputes concerning the mark. (Engels 1892)
Historians and other scholars have broadly confirmed Engels’ description of communal management of shared resources. A summary of recent research concludes:
[W]hat existed in fact was not a “tragedy of the commons” but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years — and perhaps thousands, although written records do not exist to prove the longer era — land was managed successfully by communities. (Cox 1985: 60)
Part of that self-regulation process was known in England as “stinting” — establishing limits for the number of cows, pigs, sheep, and other livestock that each commoner could graze on the common pasture. Such “stints” protected the land from overuse (a concept that experienced farmers understood long before Hardin arrived) and allowed the community to allocate resources according to its own concepts of fairness.
The only significant cases of overstocking found by the leading modern expert on the English commons involved wealthy landowners who deliberately put too many animals onto the pasture in order to weaken their much poorer neighbors’ position in disputes over the enclosure (privatization) of common lands (Neeson 1993: 156).
Hardin assumed that peasant farmers are unable to change their behavior in the face of certain disaster. But in the real world, small farmers, fishers, and others have created their own institutions and rules for preserving resources and ensuring that the commons community survived through good years and bad.
Why Does the Herder Want More?
Hardin’s argument started with the unproven assertion that herdsmen always want to expand their herds: “It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. . . . As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain.”
In short, Hardin’s conclusion was predetermined by his assumptions. “It is to be expected” that each herdsman will try to maximize the size of his herd — and each one does exactly that. It’s a circular argument that proves nothing.
Hardin assumed that human nature is selfish and unchanging and that society is just an assemblage of self-interested individuals who don’t care about the impact of their actions on the community. The same idea, explicitly or implicitly, is a fundamental component of mainstream (i.e., pro-capitalist) economic theory.
All the evidence (not to mention common sense) shows that this is absurd: people are social beings, and society is much more than the arithmetic sum of its members. Even capitalist society, which rewards the most anti-social behavior, has not crushed human cooperation and solidarity. The very fact that for centuries “rational herdsmen” did not overgraze the commons disproves Hardin’s most fundamental assumptions — but that hasn’t stopped him or his disciples from erecting policy castles on foundations of sand.
Even if the herdsman wanted to behave as Hardin described, he couldn’t do so unless certain conditions existed.
There would have to be a market for the cattle, and he would have to be focused on producing for that market, not for local consumption. He would have to have enough capital to buy the additional cattle and the fodder they would need in winter. He would have to be able to hire workers to care for the larger herd, build bigger barns, etc. And his desire for profit would have to outweigh his interest in the long-term survival of his community.
In short, Hardin didn’t describe the behavior of herdsmen in pre-capitalist farming communities — he described the behavior of capitalists operating in a capitalist economy. The universal human nature that he claimed would always destroy common resources is actually the profit-driven “grow or die” behavior of corporations.
Will Private Ownership Do Better?
That leads us to another fatal flaw in Hardin’s argument: in addition to providing no evidence that maintaining the commons will inevitably destroy the environment, he offered no justification for his opinion that privatization would save it. Once again he simply presented his own prejudices as fact:
We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust — but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.
The implication is that private owners will do a better job of caring for the environment because they want to preserve the value of their assets. In reality, scholars and activists have documented scores of cases in which the division and privatization of communally managed lands had disastrous results. Privatizing the commons has repeatedly led to deforestation, soil erosion and depletion, overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, and the ruin of ecosystems.
As Karl Marx wrote, nature requires long cycles of birth, development, and regeneration, but capitalism requires short-term returns.
[T]he entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented towards the most immediate monetary profits, stands in contradiction to agriculture, which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations. A striking illustration of this is furnished by the forests, which are only rarely managed in a way more or less corresponding to the interests of society as a whole. . . . (Marx 1998: 611n)
Contrary to Hardin’s claims, 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, because those resources will be essential to the community’s survival for centuries to come. Capitalist owners have the opposite incentive, because they will not survive in business if they don’t maximize short-term profit. If ethanol promises bigger and faster profits than centuries-old rain forests, the trees will fall.
This focus on short-term gain has reached a point of appalling absurdity in recent best-selling books by Bjorn Lomborg, William Nordhaus, and others, who argue that it is irrational to spend money to stop greenhouse gas emissions today, because the payoff is too far in the future. Other investments, they say, will produce much better returns, more quickly.
Community management isn’t an infallible way of protecting shared resources: some communities have mismanaged common resources, and some commons may have been overused to extinction. But no commons-based community has capitalism’s built-in drive to put current profits ahead of the well-being of future generations.
A Politically Useful Myth
The truly appalling thing about “The Tragedy of the Commons” is not its lack of evidence or logic — badly researched and argued articles are not unknown in academic journals. What’s shocking is the fact that this piece of reactionary nonsense has been hailed as a brilliant analysis of the causes of human suffering and environmental destruction, and adopted as a basis for social policy by supposed experts ranging from economists and environmentalists to governments and United Nations agencies.
Despite being refuted again and again, it is still used today to support private ownership and uncontrolled markets as sure-fire roads to economic growth.
The success of Hardin’s argument reflects its usefulness as a pseudo-scientific explanation of global poverty and inequality, an explanation that doesn’t question the dominant social and political order. It confirms the prejudices of those in power: logical and factual errors are nothing compared to the very attractive (to the rich) claim that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. The fact that Hardin’s argument also blames the poor for ecological destruction is a bonus.
Hardin’s essay has been widely used as an ideological response to anti-imperialist movements in the Third World and discontent among indigenous and other oppressed peoples everywhere in the world.
Hardin’s fable was taken up by the gathering forces of neo-liberal reaction in the 1970s, and his essay became the “scientific” foundation of World Bank and IMF policies, viz. enclosure of commons and privatization of public property. . . . The message is clear: we must never treat the earth as a “common treasury.” We must be ruthless and greedy or else we will perish. (Boal 2007)
In Canada, conservative lobbyists use arguments derived from Hardin’s political tract to explain away poverty on First Nations’ reserves and to argue for further dismantling of indigenous communities. A study published by the influential Fraser Institute urges privatization of reserve land:
[T]hese large amounts of land, with their attendant natural resources, will never yield their maximum benefit to Canada’s native people as long as they are held as collective property subject to political management. . . . [C]ollective property is the path of poverty, and private property is the path of prosperity. (Fraser 2002: 16-17)
This isn’t just right-wing posturing. Canada’s federal government, which has refused to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, announced in 2007 that it will “develop approaches to support the development of individual property ownership on reserve” and created a $300 million fund to do just that.
In Hardin’s world, poverty has nothing to do with centuries of racism, colonialism, and exploitation: poverty is inevitable and natural in all times and places, the product of immutable human nature. The poor bring it on themselves by having too many babies and clinging to self-destructive collectivism.
The tragedy of the commons is a useful political myth — a scientific-sounding way of saying that there is no alternative to the dominant world order.
Stripped of excess verbiage, Hardin’s essay asserted, without proof, that human beings are helpless prisoners of biology and the market. Unless restrained, we will inevitably destroy our communities and environment for a few extra pennies of profit. There is nothing we can do can to make the world better or more just.
In 1844 Friedrich Engels described a similar argument as a “repulsive blasphemy against man and nature.” Those words apply with full force to the myth of the tragedy of the commons.
Appell, G. N. 1993. “Hardin’s Myth of the Commons: The Tragedy of Conceptual Confusions.”
Boal, Iain. 2007. “Interview: Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty, Apocalypse.”CounterPunch, September 11, 2007.
Bromley, Daniel W. and Cernea Michael M. 1989. “The Management of Common Property Natural Resources: Some Conceptual and Operational Fallacies.”World Bank Discussion Paper.
Cox, Susan Jane Buck. 1985. “No Tragedy on the Commons.”Environmental Ethics 7.
Engels, Friedrich. 1892. “The Mark.”
Engels, Friedrich. 1844. Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy.
Fraser Institute. 2002. Individual Property Rights on Canadian Indian Reserves.
Hardin, Garrett. 1966. Biology: Its Principles and Implications. Second edition. San Francisco. W.H. Freeman & Co.
Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
Marx, Karl.  1998. Marx EngelsCollected Works Vol. 37 (Capital, Vol. 3). New York: International Publishers
Neeson, J.M. 1993. Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820. Cambridge University Press.
Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism
Describe how Hardin formulates the population problem, and evaluate his assumptions and his solutions in light of other evidence from the course.
For a translation by Mille Eriksen of the material below into Danish, see:
Writing in 1968 to a highly educated scientific audience, Garrett Hardin presented a compelling formulation of the population problem. He posed the population problem in stark terms. First, he examined the relation of population to resources, and concluded population must be brought under control. He then analyzed the dynamics that have caused population to swell. From this analysis, he proposed solutions. Certain aspects of his problem formulation still deserve careful consideration, but today, richer ideas for solutions complement those he proposed.
Hardin rejected the wild hope that improved food production technology will allow an indefinite increase in population: "a finite world can support only a finite population." More specifically, we cannot hope to provide growth in both the material quality of life and population. Mathematically, both factors cannot be maximized at once; and biophysically, the calories available per person must decrease as population increases. Thus he invalidated Jeremy Bentham's goal of "the greatest good for the greatest number," and concluded "the optimum population is, then, less than the maximum." (Notably, also according to this logic, the strategy of decreasing population by increasing the "standard of living" (consumption), as predicted by the demographic transition model, might be reexamined.)
But we have difficulty choosing to limit population, and choosing between which goods to pursue in a world that cannot provide for every different good because we have left the choice of "the good" entirely to individuals in our capitalistic society. We act as if individual choices will somehow solve collective problems such as population. Adam Smith's laissez-faire doctrine of the invisible hand tempts us to think that a system of individuals pursuing their private interests will automatically serve the collective interest. But applying this would be disastrous. Hardin employed a key metaphor, the Tragedy of the Commons (ToC) to show why. When a resource is held "in common," with many people having "ownership" and access to it, Hardin reasoned, a self-interested "rational" actor will decide to increase his or her exploitation of the resource since he or she receives the full benefit of the increase, but the costs are spread among all users. The remorseless and tragic result of each person thinking this way, however, is ruin of the commons, and thus of everyone using it. The straightforward application of the "herdsman" analogy to world population is that each couple expects to experience a large benefit from having another child, but only a little of the full social and ecological cost.
Both Hardin's solutions, and their weaknesses, stem from things assumed in this model. His basic solution is that we must abandon the commons system in breeding (as we have already in food production and pollution - instances where we have used privatization and laws to achieve this). People must no longer be free to add unlimited numbers of offspring to the total load on the earth's ecosystems. This sounds simple enough, but the key question is how this restriction is to be achieved.
Hardin's rejection of some solutions stems from the individualistic assumptions of his metaphor. Particularly, he rejects appeals to conscience, because they would "select for" those without scruples over having more children. It is doubtful however that conscience is entirely genetic, nor perfectly transmitted by learning in families. Further, his assumption that were it not for "welfare," over-breeders would have to pay for their profligacy, runs in the face of evidence that parents whose infants die are paradoxically both more inclined to get pregnant again, and less likely to emotionally invest in their young. Welfare may indeed be part of solving the population problem. This is just one example where Hardin fails to differentiate reproductive behavior according to socio-economic conditions.
HARDIN'S KEY ASSUMPTIONS AND PROBLEM FORMULATION:
1. The world is biophysically finite.
- The more people there are, the less each person's share must be.
- Technology (ie, agricultural) cannot fundamentally alter this.
- We can't both maximize the number of people and satisfy every desire or "good" of everyone.
- Practically, biophysical limits dictate we must both stabilize population, and make hard choices about which "goods" are to be sought.
- Both steps will generate opposition, since many people will have to relinquish something.
2. Over-population is an example of the tragedy of the commons (ToC).
- Commons are un-owned or commonly-held "pool" resources that are "free," or not allocated by markets.
- Hardin's ToC model assumes that individuals are short-term, self-interested "rational" actors, seeking to maximize their own gains.
- Such actors will exploit commons (have more babies, add more cattle to pastures, pollute the air) as long as they believe the costs to them individually are less than the benefits.
- The system of welfare insulates individuals from bearing the full costs of over-reproducing.
- When every individual believes and behaves in this manner, commons are quickly filled, degraded, and ruined along with their erst-while exploiters.
- A laissez-faire system (letting individuals choose as they like) will not "as if by an invisible hand" solve over-population.
3. The "commons" system for breeding must be abandoned (as it has been for other resources).
- In other words, something must restrain individual reproduction. . .
- but it must not be individual conscience; appealing to conscience will only result in fewer people with conscience in the population (assuming here that it is genetic, or perfectly transmitted by learning).
- It should be accomplished by "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon."
- Sacrificing freedom to breed will obtain for us other more important freedoms which will otherwise be lost.
- "Coercive" restrictions on breeding could take a number of forms.
- The "right" to determine the size of one's family must be rescinded.
- This will protect the conscientious traits in the population.
4. The problem is then to gain peoples' consent to a system of coercion.
- People will consent if they understand the dire consequences of letting the population growth rate be set only by individuals' choices.
- Educating all people about the ToC, its consequences, and the alternatives to it, is necessary.
- Then various restraints and incentives for low reproduction can and must be instituted.
While extremely clean & efficient technology might allow more people and material consumption than Hardin imagined, ultimately the trade-off between human numbers and quality of life would remain.
The model of the ToC, while compelling, generalizes from a faulty historical case study. In fact communities managed their commons; real humans are not so exclusively self-interested as to not care what their fellows think of them, and not be able to manage common concerns. It is possible that communities do observe and regulate members' fertility, rather than leaving it up to individual choice. This might be coercion on a small scale, but it could accommodate much individual need also.
The assumption that were it not for "welfare," over-breeders would have to pay for their profligacy runs in the face of evidence that parents whose infants die are paradoxically both more inclined to get pregnant again, and less likely to emotionally invest in their young. Child survival and welfare enable parents to stop at fewer children, and provide security in old age, independent from offspring's or husband's income.
People's motivations to have babies are not the same everywhere and at every time. They vary depending on economic circumstances, culture, and gender. Understanding and altering these conditions is another route to changing fertility decisions. The cost/benefit conditions of childbearing decisions can be altered in many ways. But some such strategies may require an unrealistic degree of material economic development. Ones which do not include wealth redistribution, meeting unmet need, improving the economic and educational options for girls and women, and increasing accountability of fathers.
Blunt forms or coersion such as China's one-child policy are likely to have negative unintended consequences.