The Tradgedy of “the Commons” and it’s Failings

Garrett Hardin argues that common resources will be over-exploited by those using them. Using examples, discuss this statement together with any failings with it. Your answer should include an overview of Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons.

From times immemorial, the concept of “the commons” has been inextricably linked to assumptions of ecological abundance. Indeed, the libertarian doctrines of John Locke (August 1632 – October 1704) and Adam Smith (June 1723 – July 1790) advocated for the individual appropriation of the commons and their vast reservoirs of free ecological goods. That whosoever desired the institution of property, had only mix his labour with the commons of nature (Locke 1690) was the widely accepted view at the time. As the 1960s drew to an end, global sensitisation to this “perceived cornucopia” was triggered by an influential, yet controversial paper by the biologist Garrett Hardin, entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin 1968). This essay begins with an introduction to the term “commons” and characterizes its features with respect to the non-exclusion of users and resource subtractibility. The essay then segues to Hardin’s thesis, and clarifies important nuances in his original paper concerning “open access” and “common resources.” Where appropriate, examples are given to support Hardin’s brainchild, and likewise, suitable instances of failures and shortcomings are used to countervail his thesis.
Several terms have been used to connote the idea of a shared pool of resources. Descriptives such as commons, common property, common pool resource, common heritage of mankind, and collective good, are arguably the same (Soden 1999). Firstly and implicitly, in the definition of a commons, is the requirement of a resource domain composed of resource units. Resource domains can refer to geographical spaces like parking lots, auditoriums, and fields, or it can refer to collectives such as fish stock. Resource units can either be the building blocks of the resource domain like parking spots, tons of fish, bundles of fodder, or it can be a medium in which objects are disposed (landfills).
The second feature of a commons is its availability for free utilization without repercussion or expectation of reciprocity from human actors. This unbridled usage occurs because restraining access to the resource is costly, impractical or impossible (Feeny 1990). Common resources are always attached to property rights and these rights may fall under one of four categories: open access, group property, individual property and Government property (See Table 1). Thirdly, resource units are finite and subtractive, which implies that the resource pool diminishes in proportion to each unit that is removed, and that each unit removed is no longer available for other users of the commons. With this concept of the commons properly enshrined, let us consider Hardin’s allegorical pasture.
Property Rights Characteristics
Open access Absence of enforced property rights
Group property Resource rights held by a group of users who can exclude others
Individual property Resource rights held by individuals (or firms) who can exclude others
Government property Resource rights held by a government that can regulate or subsidize use
Table 1 – Property rights and their characteristics. Taken from (Ostrom, Burger, et al. 1999)

Hardin’s thesis focuses on a common pasture used by herdsmen (H1, H2, H3 . . . . .Hn) to graze their privately owned cattle and sustain their livelihood. It is assumed that the pasture is not on the verge of being over grazed nor has the carrying capacity of the land been exceeded. In this situation, the pasture is the resource domain, while the patches of grass consumed are the resource units. The pasture is also finite and subtractive in terms of the clumps of grass consumed by grazing cattle. Initially the system of mutual grazing works well for everyone involved, and the per bovine returns for each herdsman is the same. However in the absence of enforceable limits on the use of the pasture, a rational thinking herdsman (H1) may decide to increase his herd by one cattle.
Economic theory dictates that the Profit on an investment is equivalent to the Revenue subtract the Costs. In order to maximise his profit, H1 must maximise his revenue and minimise his cost. He maximises his revenue because the extra cow is exclusively his, while the costs of sustaining her, is not exclusively his. Consequently, H1 gains one unit of productivity, at a fractional cost to himself. See equation below.

Consider H1:
Profitmax = Revenuemax [H1] – Costmin [H1, H2, H3,…,Hn]
= 1 unit – 1/n units
= (n-1)/n units

The tragedy, now in an inchoate stage of development, is fuelled when another herdsman H2 decides to maximise his own gain, in much the same way as H1. Eventually, a domino effect of exploitation unfolds where each herdsman, not to be outdone, adds not one, but more and more cattle in trying to up the ante, until the pasture becomes overgrazed and can no longer support anyone’s cattle. This is the essence of the tragedy, and as Hardin so eloquently quoted, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” (Hardin 1968).
Furthermore, Hardin has little faith in the proactivity of rational herdsmen to desist in adding more cattle, to protect the common pasture. Ophuls refers to it as the “public goods problem” – the obverse of the commons problem (Ophuls 1977). In much the same way as a rational individual gains at the loss of the other herdsmen (commons problem), he loses by benefitting them with a public good (public goods problem). For example, two individuals may own identical factories, which produce the same amount of harmful emissions. Although the more considerate owner may invest in mitigatory measures, for the common good, doing so places himself at a competitive disadvantage since the other factory owner may not follow suit. The Good Samaritan who tries to benefit the commons comes to the realization that although he is paying all the costs, his conspecifics get virtually all the benefits (Hargroves and Smith 2005).
Users of a common resource pool may be of four types. The first type behaves in narrow, selfish ways and never cooperates in dilemma situations (free riders). The second type is cautious about cooperation, and requires assurance that he will not be exploited by free riders. The third type is willing to initiate reciprocal altruism in hopes that others will “buy in”. The fourth type is the genuine altruist who tries to elevate the status of the group, selflessly (Ostrom, Burger, et al. 1999). These four categories necessarily follow a hierarchy of increasing risk. The free riders are the smallest risk takers, while the altruists take the highest risks for the group. Unfortunately, the expected returns follow an inverse relationship where the altruists usually suffer most and the free riders, least.
Referring again to Table 1, we see that whenever there is vagueness to property rights or there are official declarations of non-exclusion, resources are termed open access. The fact that open access resources are the ones most notably associated with overexploitation is a subtle nuance that should be clarified. In contrast to common property resources where there is a vested interest by stakeholders and adherence to some form of codified understanding is elicited, open access resources do not evince similar behaviour based on mutual respect. In fact, “the logic is that any given potential user lacks the incentive to forego immediate exploitation of the resource in order to conserve it, because an open-ended set of other potential users could take advantage of any resources that are left intact” (Mirovitskaya and Ascher 2001). Thus Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons often erroneously equated with common property resources is more applicable to open access resources (G. Hardin 1998) (De Young 1999)
Although not all environmental problems conform to Hardin’s tragedy, most do. Among these are the depletion of fisheries and oil reserves, urban smog, firewood crises in less developed countries, pollution of the oceans and atmosphere, and littering of spacecraft debris from nations involved in space exploration. Furthermore, as Hardin suggest in “The Tragedy of the Commons” and “Living on a Lifeboat” (G. Hardin 1974), global population growth also has elements of the tragedy scenario. As Hardin (G. Hardin 1968) states “the most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding.”
Oil drilling is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. In the early boom days of the American oil rush, drillers fiercely competed to drill as many wells hoping to strike black gold. The result was political instability and economic chaos. Consequentially, congress had to remedy the situation by the establishment of state control boards which surveyed common oil pools and allotted owners quotas, per acre of oil producing estate. This transformed oil from a common property resource to private property and exploitation proceeded in a highly regulated and transparent manner (Ophuls 1977).
Another example of the tragedy of the commons is fisheries, and history is pollinated with several examples of overharvesting (Soden 1999). When the cod cornucopia was discovered off the Grand Banks in the 16th century it was immediately exploited for over five hundred years by French, Basque and English fishermen. Because of the abundance of fish, it never occurred to fishermen to limit their catch sizes and catch frequencies, in order to allow the fishes an opportunity to regenerate. The stocks dwindled and in 1989 it collapsed. Formal closure of the fishery in 1992 precipitated the mass unemployment of hundreds of Canadian fishermen.
Thirdly, automobiles presents an interesting example of the tragedy of the commons. Indeed, unlike Hardin’s commons that is subject to tragedy on a local and immobile scale (a fixed pasture), vehicular exhausts affect a commons (the atmosphere) characterized by mobile and global parameters. In the case of urban pollution one’s own contribution seems infinitely small, while the disadvantages of self-denial loom very large. Consequently, thousands of residents of Los Angeles are hospitalized for respiratory ailments every year (McMaster 2009) as a result of polluting the atmosphere of the city, shared by millions of people every day.
Unlike vehicular pollutants which are incidental to the process of driving, pollution-with-intent highlights the self-destructive logic of the commons, for it simply reverses the dynamic of tragic overuse without altering its nature. The cost incurred by a plant operator to control his emissions is so much more than the proportional damage he incurs by polluting, that it will always be rational for him to pollute especially if he can do it unnoticed. According to (Ophuls 1977) “it profits him to harm the public.”
Finally, less developed countries have frequently been the subject of several tragedies which all too often, culminate in disaster. This is because of short term needs that supersede long term prudence. Cases in point are Haiti and China. Indigence in Haiti has been the main reason for nationwide deforestation and denuding of land to get firewood. The country is approximately 96% deforested (Bowonder and Prasad 1987) and it is no wonder that erosion has accelerated, in tandem with landslides and loss of soil integrity. Indeed the paucity of natural capital, unbalanced against social capital, has been responsible for the abundance of Environmental refugees from this Caribbean territory (Mirovitskaya and Ascher 2001).
But deforestation is perhaps a micro-tragedy when compared to the macro-tragedy of global warming. In 2007, China made the bold statement to continue to put economic development ahead of the environment, even if global warming threatened a worldwide ecological disaster. The indifference of the People’s Republic is a spectacular example of the tragedy of the commons where a nation will continue to wealth maximise even as it brings ruin to itself, its neighbours and the global commons (Turley 2007).
The aforementioned has provided us with several instances of the truthfulness of Hardin’s notion that “freedom in the commons brings ruin to all” (G. Hardin 1968). Arguably, the roots of Hardin’s thesis as well as his proposals for the averting the tragedy is to be found in Leviathan (Hobbes 1651). According to Hobbes, the life of man in a lawless state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The only way to prevent anarchy is to entrust a civil authority with the onus of keeping peace by regulating property. Accordingly, managing a commons requires either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise (G. Hardin 1998), and either option must be underpinned by “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” (G. Hardin 1968).
The first failure of Government ownership rests on the fact that imposing limits on resource use creates a system based on “use rights” and exclusion, where the distribution of rights may be solely assigned based on historical patterns of use (Soden 1999). Therefore, new users who may want to avail themselves to the resources of the commons may be excluded altogether. In other cases, nationalizing common pool resources have led to the poor treatment of local tribes who have long exercised stewardship over the resources (Hargroves and Smith 2005). Examples are seen throughout the Brazilian Amazon and the Ecuadorian Oriente, where indigenous tribes are pitted against the mercenary pursuits of oil explorers, who are given preferential treatment by Governments.
The other problem with Government control is the dichotomy that exists between home grown wisdom and ex officio expertise. Government may not be attuned to the locally crafted rules and evolved norms that are typical of well–managed common pool resources or open access resources. In Nepal in the mid 1980s for example, international aid efforts to replace primitive irrigation systems (composed of mud, stone and tree) with modern infrastructure (composed of concrete and steel) had a deleterious effect on the agricultural output of farmers. The success of the primitive system rested upon the farmers’ ability to devise effective rules related to access and allocation of benefits and costs, which were now inapplicable to the modern system of water delivery (Ostrom 1993), (Ostrom, Burger, et al. 1999), (Lam and Ostrom 2009). Consequently, there was never a consistent flow of water to more than two of the five villages after modifications were done.
Another example of Governmental aid intervention gone wrong was in the Sahel of Africa. Migratory pastoralists, who were accustomed to moving their ungulates in harmony with rains produced from the Intertropical Convergence Zone, allowed the lands north and south of the Sahel to regenerate between grazing (Halwagy 1962). However, when herdsmen began to settle around wells which were produced through Governmental incentives and piecemeal aid projects, this centuries old system of pastoralism resulted in severe effects on the land and the people. Productive land was lost because of overgrazing, and as population sizes grew, the soil became less virile. In 1968 a nationwide famine pervaded throughout the Sahel and claimed the lives of thousands (Sinclair and Fryxell 1985).
Furthermore, when comparing countries with communist ancestries, one only has to look at the degradation patterns in land use from satellite imagery to compare the effectiveness of Government control and self organized management of common pool resources. In (Ostrom, Burger, et al. 1999) images of China, and Russia showed that state-owned agricultural collectives involving permanent settlements were highly degraded and bare of vegetation. Mongolia on the other hand, which allowed pastoralists to continue their traditional group-property institutions of seasonal grazing, showed less terrestrial scarring than China and Russia. Consequently, compared to traditional group-property regimes socialism was associated with higher instances of land degradation.
Finally, nationalizing common property resources may lead to poor monitoring of resource boundaries and harvesting practices, as well as de facto open access, and a race to use the resources (Hargroves and Smith 2005). Shifting governance from local communities to the State may create a situation whereby a common property that previously had some limits on inclusion, now becomes government property with open access, where opportunists may take advantage of the absence of enforcement and regulation. Thus Statization as a mechanism to forestall the tragedy of the commons, may in fact, accelerate it.
In conclusion, we have assessed Hardin’s tragedy of the commons, citing examples of support, and identifying weaknesses and failures. Although his treatise is based on the selfishness of man as an actor in wealth maximization it must not be forgotten that man also has the capacity for sympathy towards his fellow beings (Monbiot 2004). Moreover since the entire tragedy of the commons is based on a free rider mentality (getting more, for less) it is quite possible that these genes may no longer be selectively passed to posterity. I say this because unfairness and inequity is inimical to man’s truest nature. Until that time, privatization of common resources and coercive restraint may be the way to go.

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