The Tragedy of the Commons (1968)

A2 Edexcel Government and Politics Unit 4D - Environment

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The tragedy of the commons


  • Hardin (US ecologist) - 'freedom in a commons brings ruin to all'
  • If a pasture is open to all, each herder will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.
  • This will eventually generate tragedy as the number of cattle exceeds the carrying capacity of the land.
  • Each herder calculates that the positive benefit of adding one more animal (in terms of eventual sale)
  • Will always exceed the negative impact on the land.
  • This leads to the importance of the 'global commons'/'common pool resources' (areas and natural resources that are unowned and so beyond jurisdiction)
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Threats to global commons

Threats to global commons posed by:

  • Overpopulation
  • Pollution
  • Resource depletion
  • Habitat destruction
  • Over - fishing
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An unsolvable problem?

  • Hardin: In favour of strengthened political control - restrict population growth - showing sympathy for the idea of world government.
  • Liberals: To abolish the commons by extending property rights - allowing price mechanism to control resource usage.
  • Ostrom (1990): Some societies have succeeded in managing common pool resources through developing diverse, bottom-up institutional arrangements.
  • Socialists and Anarchists: Reject idea of 'tragedy of the commons altogether'. 
  • Historical evidence suggests common land was usually successfully managed by communities (Cox, 1985) e.g. Aboriginal peoples of Australia.
  • Argument is circular: conclusions are implicit in assumption that human nature is selfish and unchanging (Angus, 2008)
  • Ecosocialists - selfishness, greed and wanton use of resources are a consequence of the system of private ownershp.
  • Community ownership engenders respect for the environment.
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