Tragedy of the commons

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Cows on Selsley Common. The "tragedy of the commons" is one way of accounting for overexploitation.

The tragedy of the commonsis an conceptual model, used in different social sciences especially since the 1800s. It refers to individual behavior based on one's self-interest being in contrary to the whole group's long-term best interests by depleting common resources. Some use of the metaphor advocate strict management of common goods via increased government involvement or international regulation bodies[1], some use an impending "tragedy of the commons" against restrictions of private property and enganced regulation.[2][3]

Elinor Ostrom was awarded 2009's Nobel Prize of Economics for her work on the issue.


Commons refers to the traditional legal term of Common land (or commons) land owned collectively or by one person, but over which other people have certain traditional rights as e.g. grazing of livestock. In general use, commons refer to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. Much research has focused on when and why people would like to structurally rearrange the commons to prevent a tragedy.

An alleged tragedy of the commons was a widespread metaphor of early economics, which came up in the late 18. century.[4] According Joachim Radkau it used parts of Aristoteles polemicy against the Polis of Platon as base of acricultural reform. So in 1833 William Forster Lloyd published a pamphlet on herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In English villages shepherds had sometimes grazed their sheep in common areas, and sheep ate grass more severely than cows. Overgrazing could result because for each additional sheep, a herder could receive benefits, while the group shared damage to the commons. If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.[5] The same concept is sometimes called the "tragedy of the fishers", because fishing too many fish before or during breeding could cause stocks to plummet.[6]

Radkau sees no correspondance at all betwen the alleged failure of the commons in the literature and the status and fonctionality of the actual commons (or "Allmende").[4] The commons where used as means for the enclosure movement and the clearances and in general to get rid of colllective rights in favor of private property. Middle Europe, especially southern Germany and the alpine countries where much slower in adapting such policies and kept their commons respectively small-scale agriculture in some regions till the present.

Doubts about actual tragic aspects[edit]

In Middle Europe, actual commons or "Allmende" provided no signs of failure at all.[4] As well Elinor Ostrom[7] found the tragedy of the commons not as prevalent or as difficult to solve. She and her coworkers looked at how real-world communities manage communal resources, such as fisheries, land irrigation systems, and farmlands, and they identified a number of factors conducive to successful resource management. One factor is the resource itself; resources with definable boundaries (e.g., land) can be preserved much more easily. A second factor is resource dependence; there must be a perceptible threat of resource depletion, and it must be difficult to find substitutes. The third is the presence of a community; small and stable populations with a thick social network and social norms promoting conservation do better.[8] A final condition is that there be appropriate community-based rules and procedures in place with built-in incentives for responsible use and punishments for overuse. Locals have often come up with solutions to the commons problem themselves; when the commons is taken over by non-locals, those solutions can no longer be used.[9] Robert Axelrod contends that even self-interested individuals will often find ways to cooperate, because collective restraint serves both the collective and individual interests.[10]

Neomalthusian interpretation[edit]

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin tried to expand the metaphor[11] on human population growth, the use of the Earth's natural resources, and the welfare state.[12] Hardin blamed the welfare state for allowing the tragedy of the commons; where the state provides for children and supports overbreeding as a fundamental human right, Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable. Hardin stated in his analysis of the tragedy of the commons that "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."[13]

Hardin's work was also criticised[14] as historically inaccurate in failing to account for the demographic transition, and for failing to distinguish between common property and open access resources.[15] Carl Dahlman argues that commons were effectively managed to prevent overgrazing.[16] Anthropologist G. N. Appell criticized those who cited Hardin to "impos[e] their own economic and environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have incomplete understanding and knowledge."[17]

As a metaphor, the tragedy of the commons should not be taken too literally. The "tragedy" is not in the word's conventional or theatric sense, nor a condemnation of the processes that lead to it. Similarly, Hardin's use of "commons" has frequently been misunderstood, leading him to later remark that he should have titled his work "The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons".[18][19]

The metaphor illustrates the argument that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to the point in which they become reliant on it, while the costs of the exploitation are borne by all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball until the resource collapses (even if it retains a capacity to recover). The rate at which depletion of the resource is realized depends primarily on three factors: the number of users wanting to consume the common in question, the consumptiveness of their uses, and the relative robustness of the common.[20]

Application to evolutionary biology[edit]

The tragedy of the commons is referred to in studies of evolutionary biology, social evolution, sociobiology and behavioral ecology. A tragedy of the commons is brought about by selfish individuals whose genes for selfish behaviour would therefore come to predominate, so the metaphor cannot explain how altruism arises. It is easy to see how cooperation can be evolved between related individuals through kin selection, but in order to understand cooperation between unrelated individuals mechanisms which confer direct benefits to the actor must be considered such as by-product benefits and reciprocal altruism.[citation needed]

A parallel was drawn recently between the tragedy of the commons and the competing behaviour of parasites that through acting selfishly eventually diminish or destroy their common host.[21]

The idea has also been applied to areas such as the evolution of virulence or sexual conflict, where males may fatally harm females when competing for matings.[22] It is also raised as a question in studies of social insects, where scientists wish to understand why insect workers do not undermine the "common good" by laying eggs of their own and causing a breakdown of the society.

The idea of evolutionary suicide, where adaptation at the level of the individual causes the whole species or population to be driven extinct, can be seen as an extreme form of an evolutionary tragedy of the commons.[23][24]

Social science commons dilemma[edit]

The commons dilemma is a specific class of social dilemma in which people's short-term selfish interests are at odds with long-term group interests and the common good. In academia, a range of related terminology has also been used as shorthand for the theory or aspects of it, including resource dilemma, take-some dilemma, and common pool resource.

Commons dilemma researchers have studied conditions under which groups and communities are likely to under- or over-harvest common resources in both the laboratory and field. Research programs have concentrated on a number of motivational, strategic, and structural factors that might be conducive to management of commons.

In game theory, which constructs mathematical models for individuals' behavior in strategic situations, the corresponding "game", developed by the ecologist Garrett Hardin, is known as the Commonize Costs – Privatize Profits Game (CC–PP game).

Ccommons dilemma in psychologicy[edit]

Kopelman, Weber, & Messick (2002), in a review of the experimental research on cooperation in commons dilemmas, identify nine classes of independent variables that influence cooperation in commons dilemmas: social motives, gender, payoff structure, uncertainty, power and status, group size, communication, causes, and frames. They organize these classes and distinguish between psychological individual differences (stable personality traits) and situational factors (the environment). Situational factors include both the task (social and decision structure) and the perception of the task.[25]

Empirical findings support the theoretical argument that the cultural group is a critical factor that needs to be studied in the context of situational variables.[26] Rather than behaving in line with economic incentives, people are likely to approach the decision to cooperate with an appropriateness framework.[27] An expanded, four factor model of the Logic of Appropriateness,[28][29] suggests that the cooperation is better explained by the question: "What does a person like me (identity) do (rules) in a situation like this (recognition) given this culture (group)?"

Related outcomes[edit]

Tragedy of the commons is one of four outcomes[citation needed]:

Private ownership Common ownership
Bad outcome/tragedy Tragedy of the anticommons Tragedy of the commons
Good outcome/cornucopia Successful capitalism Comedy of the commons

The prevalent outcome depends on the details of the situation. The opposite outcome to the tragedy is the "comedy of the commons"[30] or "inverse commons", in which network effects or other causes enhance the value of rivalrous resources because of the lack of regulation or private ownership.

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Radkau, Joachim. Nature and Power. A Global History of the Environment. Cambridge University Press. 2008.
  2. ^ Mirovitskaya, N.; Soroos, M. S. (January 1995 vol. 4 no. 1 77–110). "Socialism and the Tragedy of the Commons: Reflections on Environmental Practice in the Soviet Union and Russia". The Journal of Environment Development 4: 77. doi:10.1177/107049659500400105. 
  3. ^ Perry, Mark (June 1995 • Volume: 45 • Issue: 6). "Why Socialism Failed". The Freeman. 
  4. ^ a b c Joachim Radkau: Natur und Macht. Eine Weltgeschichte der Umwelt. C.H. Beck, 2002, ISBN 3-406-48655-X, p. 15, 55 and 90ff.
  5. ^ Lloyd, William Forster (1833). Two Lectures on Population. 
  6. ^ Samuel Bowles: Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution, Princeton University Press, pp. 27–29 (2004) ISBN 0-691-09163-3
  7. ^ Ostrom, Elinor, Joanna Burger, Christopher B. Field, Richard B. Norgaard, and David Policansky (1999): Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges, in: Science, Vol. 284, 9 April, pp. 278–282.
  8. ^ Elinor Ostrom: Beyond the tragedy of commons. Stockholm whiteboard seminars. (Video, 8:26 min.)
  9. ^ "Ostrom 'revisits the commons' in 'Science'". 
  10. ^ Axelrod, Robert (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02121-2. 
  11. ^ "The Tragedy of the Commons". Science 162 (3859): 1243–1248. 1968. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243. PMID 5699198.  edit
  12. ^ Hardin, G. (1968-12-13). "The Tragedy of the Commons". Science (AAAS) 162 (3859): 1243–1248. doi:10.1126/science.162.3859.1243. PMID 5699198. Retrieved 22 October 2013. "it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons." 
  13. ^ Hardin, 1244
  14. ^ Dasgupta, Partha. "Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment". 
  15. ^ Ciriacy-Wantrup S.V., Bishop R.C., 1975. "Common Property" as a Concept in Natural Resources Policy. Nat. Res. J. 15, 713–727
  16. ^ Appell, G. N. (1993). Hardin's Myth of the Commons: The Tragedy of Conceptual Confusions. Working Paper 8. Phillips, ME: Social Transformation and Adaptation Research Institute.
  17. ^ "Will commons sense dawn again in time? | The Japan Times Online". 2006-07-26. Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  18. ^ Hardin, Garrett (May 1, 1998). "Extensions of "The Tragedy of the Commons"". Science 280 (5364): 682. doi:10.1126/science.280.5364.682. 
  19. ^ "Brigham Daniels, Emerging Commons Tragic Institutions | Environmental Law | Vol. 37 (2007), pp. 515–571 at 536". Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  20. ^ The tragedy of the commons, the public goods dilemma, and the meaning of rivalry and excludability in evolutionary biology Francisco Dionisio and Isabel Gordo Evolutionary Ecology Research 2006
  21. ^ Sex, death and tragedy Daniel J. Rankin and Hanna Kokko Laboratory of Ecological and Evolutionary Dynamics May 2006
  22. ^ Can adaptation lead to extinction? Rankin, D.J. & López-Sepulcre, A. (2005) Oikos 111: 616–619
  23. ^ The tragedy of the commons in evolutionary biology Rankin, D.J., Bargum, K. & Kokko, H. (2007) Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22: 643–65
  24. ^ Kopelman, Weber, & Messick, 2002.
  25. ^ Gelfand & Dyer, 2000
  26. ^ Weber et al., 2004.
  27. ^ Kopelman, 2009.
  28. ^ Myers & Kopelman, 2012.
  29. ^ Rose, C. M. (Summer 1986). "The Comedy of the Commons: Commerce, Custom, and Inherently Public Property". The University of Chicago Law Review 53 (3): 723–781. Retrieved 4 September 2011. "the commons was not tragic, but comedic, in the classical sense of a story with a happy outcome. And customary doctrines suggest that commerce might be thought a "comedy of the commons" not only because it may infinitely expand our wealth, but also, at least in part, because it has been thought to enhance the sociability of the members of an otherwise atomized society" 


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