Tragedy of the commons

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The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. Hardin’s Commons Theory is cited to support the notion of sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection and has had an effect on current issues, including debate over global warming. Central to Hardin’s article is an example of a hypothetical situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put succeeding cows he acquires onto the land, even if the quality of the common is temporarily or permanently damaged, through over grazing. The herder receives all benefits from an additional cow while damage to the common is shared by entire group. If all herders make this rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or destroyed to the detriment of all. The tragedy of the commons is an economics theory, according to which individuals, acting independently according to one’s self-interest, behave contrary to whole group’s long-term best interests by depleting a common resource. ‘Commons’ can include the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, fish stocks, national parks, office refrigerator and any other shared resource. Tragedy of the commons has relevance in analyzing behaviour in fields of economics, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, game theory, politics, taxation and sociology. Some see ‘tragedy’ as an example of emergent behaviour. Hardin was interested in the problem of human population growth. In his essay, he focused on use of larger resources like Earth’s atmosphere and oceans and pointing out ‘negative commons’ of pollution. The ‘tragedy’ is not in the word’s conventional sense nor a condemnation of processes that lead to it. Free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource reduces the resource through over-exploitation. This occurs because benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of resource to the point in which they become reliant on it while costs of exploitation are borne by all those to whom resource is available. This causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes problem to snowball until resource collapses. Rate at which depletion of resource is realized depends on three factors: number of users wanting to consume the common in question, consumptiveness of their uses and relative robustness of the commons. Tragedy of the commons can be considered in relation to environmental issues like sustainability. Commons dilemma stands as a model for a great variety of resource problems today, like water, forests, fish and non-renewable energy sources. Situations exemplifying ‘tragedy of the commons’ include overfishing and destruction of Grand Banks, destruction of salmon runs on rivers that have been dammed, limited water available in arid regions. Other situations exemplifying the ‘tragedy of the commons’ include congestion caused by driving cars. There are many negative externalities of driving: pollution, carbon emissions and traffic accidents. Articulating solutions to the tragedy of the commons is one of the problems of political philosophy. In absence of enlightened self-interest, some form of federation is needed to solve collective action problem. Governmental regulations can limit amount of a common good that is available for use by any individual. Permit systems for extractive economic activities including mining, fishing, hunting, livestock raising and timber extraction are examples of this approach. Limits to pollution are examples of governmental intervention on behalf of the commons. Resource users themselves can co-operate to conserve the...
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