The real ‘tragedy of the commons’

In 1968 a paper entitled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ was published in Science magazine.  The focus of the paper, by a biologist called Garrett Hardin[i], was the global ‘population problem’, caused by a perceived exponential population growth on a finite planet.  Inspired by the views of a 19th century paper[ii] on the ‘population problem’ the future picture painted by Hardin was bleak, referring not just to lack of material resources, but also to the problems of waste assimilation and overall quality of life on a crowded planet.  Hardin pointed out that the population problem is one without a technical solution, one requiring a change in attitude, fundamental values and behaviour, and ultimately the abandonment of what he called ‘the freedom to breed’.

The difficulty with Hardin’s paper is that he referred to the issue of uncontrolled population growth as a ‘commons’.  He used the same terminology throughout the paper with reference to examples of resource destruction in, what he termed, ‘commons’; although the examples he used are not what we would today consider as commons but described ‘open access regimes’ where property rights are not assigned and the level of resource utilisation is uncontrolled.  His first example, and the one that is always remembered, was that of a pasture where ‘herdsmen’ can graze as many cattle as they wish, and because each herdsman can put out ever increasing numbers of cattle onto the pasture the end result is over-grazing and destruction of the resource – bringing ‘ruin to all’.  Unfortunately for the planet, his arguments continue to influence thinking about the nature of commons resources.

A key problem with Hardin’s argument is that in a wide-ranging paper alluding to grazing pastures, population growth, pollution, oceans, and references to the great plains of the western USA, he consistently mixes up terminology by confounding ‘commons’ with ‘open access’ resource regimes.  This is clear right from the first example on grazing used to illustrate his central argument, where he states:

“Picture a pasture open to all.  It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.” (italics added)

There, in two adjacent sentences, he uses the term as simply another description of an open access property rights regime where access to the resource is uncontrolled.  He is correct in his arguments that in an open access regime over-use of the resource will ultimately occur and result in degradation of the resource and ‘ruin’.  He is wrong in calling this illustration of his main argument a ‘commons’.  His fault lies in what we would now consider to be incorrect use of terminology (confounding ‘commons’ with ‘open access’) and using concepts that are not clearly explained.

Far from tragedy, sustainable management of a lowland grazing common through enforcement of locally agreed regulations. Cleeve Common, Gloucestershire – multiple uses include exercise of grazing rights, golf, outdoor recreation, biodiversity enhancement, and heritage protection.

Some may suggest that he could be forgiven for confusing the concepts, as our understanding of the value and significance of commons resources has grown and changed over the last fifty years (for example, we now recognise issues such as climate and biodiversity as global commons, along with ‘new’ commons such as knowledge, and cities).  Also, he was not the only academic writing at the time to use the term ‘commons’ to cover a wide range of different property rights systems, including what were viewed as ‘unowned’ resources.  However, even in the 1960’s the differences between public and private goods were clear to society.  One clear example of this understanding is the formation of national parks in the USA, where resources were removed from the ‘private’ sphere to ensure they were not destroyed.  Starting in the 1870s large areas of land were ‘saved for the nation’ through the creation of the first national parks[iii], an idea that quickly spread to other parts of the world.  It was also known that the manorial commons of feudal England were controlled and highly regulated, and not open access, and legal and economic scholars were becoming familiar with the relative merits of different property rights regimes[iv].

Hardin compounds his terminological confusion through the examples selected to illustrate his argument.  He makes a reference to national parks in the USA, at one point stating they are commons, but also that they are ‘open to all’ (i.e. open access regimes), but in fact they are neither.  In the 1960s they may have been ‘open to all’ in the sense that no entrance fee was charged but once inside the Park boundaries utilisation was strictly regulated.  National parks are Federally owned and managed land and, cleared of virtually all former residents, they are firmly under government control that regulates and determines who can utilise them (and how), and who may benefit economically (e.g. through leasing of concessions for provision of services such as accommodation[v]).  National Parks in the USA during the 1960’s may have been ‘free at the point of entry’, which could be interpreted as unlimited access, but that was a result of regulations set by the state, and nothing to do with the nature of the resource itself.  National Parks are not commons, today they are more like ‘club goods’ where access requires payment.  By contrast, commons are resources managed ‘in common’ by a recognised community (or communities) of users.  Utilisation of the resource is carefully regulated the users to ensure that the benefits of the resource are maximised across the community, and not degraded over time.

Other examples used in the paper, such as ocean resources and metered parking in a city are also examples of open access regimes, although he refers to them mistakenly as commons.  For example, he makes reference to cattlemen ‘leasing national land on the western ranges’ and degrading the resource through overgrazing, but again this has nothing to do with commons management. What he refers to is land leased from the property owner by agricultural businesses.  In this case it is land under Federal government control, which regulates utilisation and decides who can graze, where and for how long.  It is not land shared or managed in common, it is not a ‘commons’ resource.  The fact that the ‘cattlemen’ were so successful in lobbying government to increase grazing rights says much about the weakness of state control and ‘pork barrel’ politics[vi], but it has nothing to do with commons management.

Finally, Hardin’s use of uncontrolled pollution as an example, whereby various forms of wastes are discharged ‘into the commons’, once again describes an open access regime that lacks effective regulatory controls, not a commons where the resource is shared and use rights controlled to maintain the flow of benefits.  At the time of writing (late 1960s) the USA was only just beginning to grapple with multiple pollution problems, and the ecological impacts of pollution were only just beginning to dawn on society.  Uncontrolled emissions and discharges of waste were being viewed by some as a major issue (e.g. ‘Silent Spring’, Rachel Carson’s book about the effect of pesticides had been published several years earlier in 1962 eventually resulting in Federal action to ban DDT; the Cuyahoga River fire[vii] of 1969, a major spur to the development of environmentalism and pollution control, had not yet occurred; and the first effective Federal legislation to control pollution did not appear until the early 1970s).  In that context it is perhaps understandable that scientists such as Hardin might flail around seeking to find the underlying causes of such a catalogue of catastrophes, which as he pointed out, do not have technological solutions.  But to characterise the underlying cause of society’s ills, such as resource degradation, pollution, and overpopulation as ‘commons’ issues, without any clear explanation of the term, or provision of valid evidence, has done a great disservice, both to communities dependent on resources managed ‘in-common’, and the search for effective solutions to environmental and resource management issues around the world.

Managing the urban commons – regulating the use of space.

Why get so worked up about a paper published 50 years ago?  The answer is because of the damage that it has done and continues to do worldwide.  There are three main reasons why it continues to be a problem.  First of all, the title of the paper is one easily remembered, and unfortunately incorporates, in a very concise manner, the main message readers take away with them, that to manage a resource as ‘a commons’ is to invite tragedy.  This is not helped by the use of emotive language making reference to the ‘horror of the commons’; despite the fact that all of Hardin’s examples refer to open access regimes, not to commons (which are highly regulated systems of resource management).

Secondly, he consistently confounds the concepts.  Although he was referring to systems of ‘open access’, he called them ‘commons’.  This was not without precedent among those writing at the time but it ignored the resources held and managed ‘in-common’ in many countries, which in some cases have been managed for hundreds of years, resulting not in tragic ruin, but in long-term sustainable management[viii].  Commons are shared resources managed through regulation and ‘mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’ (Hardin’s supposedly unique solution to the ‘open access’ problems he describes).  Although Hardin’s argument makes sense in relation to resources under open access regimes, a simple exploration of commons management would have demonstrated the logical absurdity of its application to commons governance.  Any community reliant on a shared resource (such as a pasture, or a fishery) for its livelihood would not survive long if the resource were managed as an open access regime and was ‘open to all’ to take as much as they wanted.  Two examples of commons illustrate this point, the Alpine pastures of Europe, and the English upland commons.  Neither would have survived into the 21st century as economically viable means of agricultural management if it were not for the fact that these commons are managed through regulations that control the level of grazing and the number and type of animals that can be put out onto ‘the grazing pasture’.  This form of governance, whereby the local users decide on the level of use, create regulations, and impose sanctions on rule breakers is how effective commons resource management occurs in communities around the world.

Third, his paper has been widely mis-understood, misconstrued, and mis-used, resulting in destruction of sustainably managed commons resources in many parts of the world.  The ‘tragedy’ of the commons is not that management of commons results in ruin, that is not the case.  Open access regimes and commons are two very different forms of resource governance.  While it is demonstrably true that resource degradation will result from open access regimes that allow uncontrolled access to resources (e.g. the Cod fishery on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland), tragedy is not the necessary end result for commons managed through strong institutional arrangements that regulate use.  This is not to say that commons are not sometimes poorly managed, or that governance regimes do not collapse causing resource degradation, they do.  Changes in resource use and property rights can also result in loss of commons, but the cause is not Hardin’s ‘remorseless logic’ that results in disaster, that is a reference that applies only to uncontrolled or ‘open’ access resource management.

It is a tragedy that this paper continues to be used to illustrate commons management (one hopes not uncritically, but evidence on the internet suggests otherwise).  It continues to affect thinking[ix] and government policy about resource management, resulting in destruction of commons and replacement with (often less efficient) privatisation, or state control.  It is tragic that a paper written by a biologist about population control in 1968, using concepts he did not sufficiently clarify, and unsupported by any evidence, said that all commons management always ends in ruin, which as Ostrom[x] and others[xi] have shown, is patently false.  The real tragedy is that fifty years on, people are still influenced by this paper with its misguided use of terminology, and description of problems that relate to open access regimes, not to commons.



[i] Hardin, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons’.  Science 162, pp.1243-1248.

[ii] Lloyd, W.F. (1833) Two letters on the checks to population.  Oxford University Press.

[iii] Yellowstone National Park.  Birth of a National Park.

[iv] Buchanan, J.M. (1965) An Economic Theory of Clubs.  Economica, New Series, Vol. 32, No. 125, pp. 1-14;  Gordon, H.S. (1954) The Economic Theory of a Common-Property Resource: The Fishery Source: The Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 62, No. 2, pp. 124-142.

[v] O’Connor, M. C.  (2017) Trump moves to privatize America’s national parks, visitor costs may rise.

[vi] Investopedia.  What are some examples of “pork barrel politics” in the United States?

[vii] Latson, J. (2015) The Burning River That Sparked a Revolution.

[viii] Ostrom, E. (2005) Understanding institutional diversity.  Princeton University Press.

[ix] Some very brief examples where confusion over terminology, or misunderstanding, exists.  There are many examples on the internet where ‘commons’ continues to be interpreted to mean ‘open access’, a few are listed here:

[x] Ostrom, Elinor (1990)  Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

[xi] Feeny, D., Berkes, F., McCay, B.J., and Acheson, J.M. The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later.  Human Ecology, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1990.