What Is the Essence of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’? How Can This Tragedy Be Overcome?

Topics: Global warming, Emissions trading, Tragedy of the commons Pages: 7 (2625 words) Published: January 10, 2012
What is the essence of the ‘tragedy of the commons’? How can this tragedy be overcome? The theory behind the ‘tragedy of the commons’ has been around for thousands of years. Aristotle is quoted as saying ‘What is common to the greatest numbers, has least care bestowed upon it.’ This societal theory was brought into modern light by Hardin’s 1969 essay entitled the ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. Since its publication the premise of the ‘tragedy’ has been used to explain how human nature has caused negative implications for the environment. Two such examples of this, global warming and overfishing and whaling will be discussed. Ways to overcome the ‘tragedy of the commons’ using hierarchical, market or community governance techniques will also be discussed as will more specifically the debate around the most effective ways to ensure sustainable development when it comes to dealing with global warming and overfishing. Hardin’s aforementioned essay explains the ‘tragedy’ using a theoretical approach. He asks us to imagine a field which is open to all to use. This open pasture is used by herdsmen to allow their cattle to graze. It is important to note that these cattle are not affected by poaching or disease, as social stability exists in these commons. Each herdsman will continue to add cattle to the pasture so as to expand amount of proceeds coming from their herd. The negative effect of this is that less grass and space will be available for the cattle to graze upon. This is however a negative shared by all herdsmen and the positive outweighs the negative while the pasture is good. Eventually continued pressure placed upon the pasture by the overgrazing will result in exhaustion of the resource and this is what Hardin regards as the ‘tragedy’. He explains that it is rational thought of self interest that leads to the ‘tragedy’.[1] De Young explains that it is common pool resources (CPR) and not public goods that are involved in the ‘tragedy’. This is so because the use of public goods by one does not affect another as the use of CPRs do, therefore CPRs are regarded as subtractable. De Young also argues that the maintenance of both public goods and CPRs benefits all that use the resources but those who maintain CPRs care greatly about who else uses them. It can therefore be said that while the ‘tragedy’ is not inevitable, it is most likely to occur when the resource is a ‘CPR that is subtractable, able to be overused and experiencing unrestrained open access.’[2] A final important aspect in the cause of the ‘tragedy’ is lack of information. Those using the commons may not know the nature of the resource and possibly regard it as infinite, or in another case lack of information about others using the commons may lead to hasty overuse in fear of others doing the same.[3] The hypothetical scenario of overgrazing in a common pasture has drawn parallels with environmental issues which are now seen as important in the modern day. One such example of this is global warming. The causes of this problem are brought about by many many people seemingly acting in innocent self interest.[4] In this case it is the unwanted by-products of economic production and the lack of payment made for these negative externalities that are allowing the increase in global warming.[5] As Hardin explains the cost of noxious discharges into the atmosphere must be shared by all people and at this stage the positives for lack of sustainable development outweigh the negatives.[6] In the case of global warming, the negative externalities from energy-extensive businesses that rely on the burning of fossil fuels are the build up of greenhouses gases in the earth’s atmosphere.[7] The concentration of these gases, especially carbon dioxide, is causing the earth’s temperature to rise and the creation of more volatile weather patterns in general.[8] So in terms of Hardin’s original theory, the earth’s atmosphere is the common shared by all people and the activities...
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