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The Tragedy of the Commons

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The Tragedy of the Commons

  • September 2008
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The Tragedy of the Commons is a type of social trap, often economic, that involves a conflict over finite resources between individual interests and the common good. The term derives originally from a comparison noticed by William Forster Lloyd with medieval village land holding in his 1833 book on population. The metaphor illustrates how free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately structurally dooms the resource through over-exploitation. 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 distributed among all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than that which is exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball to the point in which the resource is exhausted. As a metaphor, the Tragedy of the Commons should not be taken too literally. The phrase is shorthand for a structural relationship and the consequences of that relationship, not a precise description of it. The "tragedy" should not be seen as tragic in the conventional sense, nor must it be taken as condemnation of the processes that are ascribed to it. The metaphor illustrates how free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately structurally dooms the resource through over-exploitation. 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 distributed among all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than that which is exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball to the point in which the resource...

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