The Tragedy of the Commons and Why We Are All Awful

The first time I read the Tragedy of the Commons I was taking my first semester of AP environmental science. From today’s perspective of looking over a ridge into highly possible ecological collapse, the tragedy of the commons seems like a fairly obvious concept, but when Garrett Hardin presented the idea in 1968, it entered a thriving conversation about natural capital and land use, as the Wilderness Act had been enacted just 4 years prior.

The tragedy involves some math and often has to do with cows or fish, and in the interest of time, I’m going to use this fun little dinosaur comic to illustrate the concept:


Addressing the actual complexity of humans interacting with the environment sometimes makes me wish I was also extinct. 

What I didn’t read in high school, however, was Elinor Ostrom’s argument for the “non-tragedy of the commons.” Elinor Ostrom was the only woman so far to receive a Nobel prize in economics, and she argued that Hardin’s argument wasn’t right 100% of the time and that there were often times where commons had been managed between multiple groups sustainably for generations. And though Hardin does have a point that commons are often abused, his overgeneralization of attitude and culture makes me more inclined to agree with Ostrom.

I believe Hardin was approaching this concept from the views of a man living in a western capitalist society, something that is often misconstrued as “average.” I do not blame him for this approach, he was a man of the 1960’s after all, deep in the ideas of classic environmental thought. But if you look elsewhere in the world, communities that live close together, and close to their commons, can communicate with each other to preserve their natural capital. The problem is when those who are from outside of said community wish to exploit the commons for their gain, without concern for the community that depends on it. Capitalism, am I right ladies?

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