Tragedy Of Commons Redux: What Have We Learned?

pexels erik mclean 6194220The American ecologist Garrett Hardin wrote in his 1968 paper ‘The Tragedy of Commons’, “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited.” Disrespected by unregulated exploitation, inefficient utilization of its gifts and driven by human greed, the environment of today has been making its pleading attempts to the human beings to remember the words of one of their own and to not push mindlessly towards a doom. With the doom much more in our range than ever before, it is time to recognize the aspects of our ‘tragedy’.

The tragedy of commons theory postulates that the unregulated usage of a limited shared resource (the common resource) by the rising count of the public who are only concerned by their individual benefits and gains would lead to the irreversible exploitation of that resource, hurting the entire population that benefitted from the shared resource which is hence the tragedy. The idea could be applied to any natural resource at hand as all of the natural resources are limited and ultimately scarce to satisfy the growing needs of a growing population.

Neglected Nature

Hardin described several instances where the management of natural resources as commons could lead to the extinction and degradation of those natural resources. Talking about maritime exploitation, Harding pointed out that, “the oceans of the world continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons, professing to believe in the inexhaustible resources of the oceans, they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction.” Paying no heed to the warning, the maritime world of today is under critical pressure of mass extinction of marine animal life. Believed to have homed an endless supply of cod fish in the 1960s and 1970s, the Grand Banks fishing region off the coast of Newfoundland saw an exponentially high cod fishing practice. In the 1990s, much like the rise of the Grand Banks fishing industry, the new technologies facilitated for the fishing of cods to an extend never seen before. However this practice facilitated a large fall in the cod population which along with it brought down the cod fishing industry. Now considered irreplaceable, the Grand Banks concern is just one of the hundreds of instances that depicted the tragedy of commons in real life.  Similar is the condition for the endangered population of the Bluefin Tuna in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean. Even though the International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) was established for better fish harvesting practices, the Bluefin Tuna populace continues to succumb to countries that have not signed the convention and to exploitative human greed, much like the close path to extinction of around 34 species of marine life (WWF, 2020).

Hardin also refers to the injection of harmful materials by individuals back into the commons, he points out, “the sewage or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air,” that would only increase with the growing population as, “the rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them.” The rising population has created a larger stress on the population and is also responsible for producing more waste on a daily basis. Furthermore the unregulated misuse of corporations of the air and water resources have led to a global society desperate to hold on to its dying planet. All through the world’s water bodies, trash has started to aggregate in the focal point of gyres or rather circular currents. These large amounts of garbage deposited by individuals, housing and working complexes and countries in water bodies ranging from lakes to oceans is a universal phenomenon. Demolition of ocean and other water bodies’ biological systems in view of trash, particularly plastic contaminations, is probably going to influence each individual on the planet as these toxins cycle through and could lead to our own destruction through food chain. Simultaneous destruction due to unpractical growing demands of corporations and rising population is that of the air. The air pollution from industries, vehicles and growing cattle population has risen drastically due to unchecked or not stringent enough regulatory policies. The Air Quality Index (AQI) has shown a rise in global air pollution levels with some places at New Delhi going beyond a 999 AQI rating. The choking of New Delhi could therefore be considered as a prediction for what is to come for urban locations all over the world.

The Way Ahead

While the pollution of air is an example of the tragedy of commons, the atmosphere itself provides a scope into mechanisms through which we could curb the impending tragedy. The air pollution concern has at several points of history pushed the international organizations and countries to push for stronger measures and policies. The Kyoto Protocol’s attempt to unify the nations of the world to global warming and misuse of air resource and the odd-even vehicle rule taken by several states and countries were steps in the direction to evade the tragedy of commons. Nonetheless, many ecologists have criticized such efforts for the initiatives did not truly acknowledge the urgency of the matter at hand.

As a method to avoid tragedy of commons in management of natural resources, Hardin introduces the concept of mutual coercion, to create a certain sense of control in the usage of resources. But while Hardin utilises this idea to encourage private property formation, Kareva et al. (2013) taking an element from the idea of mutual coercion, provides the solution of punishment of over-consumers. Implemented by the governing state, there should be a system of punishing the over-consumers of the common pool natural resources while encouraging the under-consumers. With the scope of the punishment in various methods such as taxes, Kareva points out that while the act of encouraging under-consumers already exists, it will not be enough in avoiding the tragedy of commons in management of resources. There requires to be a punishment system in place that is to increase in a non-linear procedure with respect to how much of an exploitation/over-use has happened and one that would vary with the initial distribution of resources in the society. This potentially would assist in curbing the exploitatory practices of large corporations and wealthy individuals and the encouragement of under-consumers could play a role in upliftment of the socially and economically disadvantaged sections of the world society.


The Director-General of the WWF once wrote, “It is time to focus on the solutions which we know exist or have the potential to be developed and along with behavioural change, can help us reboot the health of our nature and planet.” There has never been a more significant time in recognizing the various aspects of the Tragedy of Commons and the limits to growth. We have already burned and killed more than we can repair and there requires to be the harshest decisions taken to reverse our fate. Responsible governance and prohibition of over-consumption should be our today to have a tomorrow.