The tragedy of the commons is a situation where individuals, who have open access to a resource unregulated by the state, act in their own self-interest contrary to the common good.
When combined, the actions of individuals lead to the overall depletion or spoiling of a public resource (Hardin, 1968).
This dilemma arises from a lack of governance regarding certain common resources like fisheries, forests, and unowned lands, which can lead to resource overuse and eventual environmental degradation.
Overfishing is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Each individual catches his haul to earn his daily income, thinking his small haul doesn’t make a difference, but collectively, it causes rapid resource depletion.
Tragedy of the Commons Definition
Garret Hardin founded the term “Tragedy of the commons” in 1968, describing how individuals make decisions based on personal needs rather than the interests of the group.
This leads to rapid resource depletion, to the long-term detriment of all.
Common goods are commonly exposed to the tragedy of the commons because they’re non-excludable but rivalrous.
In other words, common resources, such as forests or fish stocks, are non-excludable but rivalrous; everyone has open access, but one person’s use will affect the availability to others.
Hardin (1968) elucidated how ensuring sustainable management of common goods get complicated by the fact that users might prioritize their immediate benefits over the long-term welfare of the community.
For instance, a fisherman may decide to increase his catch (despite there being enough for everyone if used sustainably), thereby decreasing the amount of fish available for others, potentially depleting the fish stock overtime.
Public Goods, on the other hand, such as street lighting or national defense, are non-excludable and non-rivalrous, meaning they are available to all members of a society, and one person’s use does not hinder another’s, meaning they’re not exposed to this tragedy.
Tragedy of the Commons Examples
1. Overfishing depleting global fish stocks
Overfishing depleting global fish stocks epitomizes the tragedy of the commons. The need for for immediate economic gains drives fishermen to catch more fish than the aquatic ecosystems can replace, thus degrading the marine commons they depend upon for their livelihood (Pauly & Zeller, 2016).
Such actions by the seafood industry, motivated by short-term benefits, overlook the long-term harm caused to the overall fish population, eventually causing serious harm to the world’s fish stocks. A move toward sustainable fishing will only be achieved through regulation and collective action.
2. Unrestricted grazing causing desertification
Unrestricted grazing is another instance of the tragedy of the commons. The open access nature of common grazing lands promotes overgrazing as livestock owners aim to maximize their individual benefit. As Frischmann (2019) states, this overuse can lead to desertification, characterized by land degradation, soil erosion, and diminished vegetation, upsetting both local ecosystems and agricultural yields, and threatening the livelihood of local communities.
Sustainable agriculture and livestock management is necessary to overcome this problem.
3. Deforestation for agricultural expansion
Deforestation for agricultural expansion provides another stark example. In pursuit of individual profit, farmers often aim to maximize their cultivated land through agricultural expansion. This leads to the deforestation of vast landscapes without consideration for the long-term environmental impacts such as loss of biodiversity, carbon emissions, and changes in rainfall patterns (Keenan et al., 2015). This serves as a perfect illustration of Hardin’s tragedy of the commons, where the lack of governance and regulation leads to resource overuse and eventual degradation of the natural environment.
The overuse of shared water resources, such as rivers and aquifers, presents a classic case of the tragedy of the commons. Mancosu et al. (2016) highlighted that unrestricted access encourages users to exploit these resources regardless of their limited nature, leading to water depletion and impacting water availability for future generations. As a result, communities may struggle with water shortages, which in turn, hinder agriculture, industry, and everyday living.
5. Air pollution from industrial activities
Air pollution from industrial activities personifies the tragedy of the commons at a devastating scale. Companies frequently emit pollutants into the atmosphere because it is the least costly way to get rid of waste material (Frischmann, 2019). Despite causing health and environmental damage, companies persist with these practices in pursuit of profit. The public bears the brunt of these actions through deteriorated air quality and its wellness ramifications.
6. Littering in public spaces
Littering is a public display of the tragedy of the commons principle. Individually, one might think their single act of discarding trash improperly wouldn’t affect the bigger picture. However, when everyone adopts this mentality, public spaces become overwhelmed with garbage, creating unhealthy and aesthetically displeasing environments (Cataldi, 2019).
7. Traffic congestion in urban areas
Traffic congestion provides a daily reminder of Hardin’s theory applied to urban transport frameworks. Each driver’s decision to use personal vehicles contributes to traffic congestion, which in turn, decreases the efficiency of roads for all others (Haseler, 2009).
8. Unregulated hunting causing species extinction
Unregulated hunting provides another poignant illustration of the tragedy of the commons. Hunters, poachers, and wildlife traders often exploit unregulated wildlife for personal gain (Chapron et al., 2016). The cumulative impact of these pursuits can ultimately drive species to extinction, undermining ecosystems and biodiversity.
9. Excessive groundwater extraction
Excessive groundwater extraction serves as yet another example of the tragedy of the commons. Without proper regulation, individuals and corporations may opt to extract more groundwater than can be naturally replenished, jeopardizing long-term water security. Already, globally significant aquifers are showing signs of distress due to unsustainable extraction rates (Famiglietti, 2014). This not only threatens populations who depend on these water resources but also harms the ecosystems that rely on them.
10. Depletion of antibiotic effectiveness
The tragedy of the commons is reflected in the depletion of antibiotic effectiveness, widely known as antibiotic resistance. When antibiotics are overly prescribed or misused, bacteria become resilient, reducing the efficacy of these medications (Ventola, 2015). Although individual patients may momentarily benefit from the extensive use of antibiotics, the global community ends up suffering as formerly curative medicines become ineffective.
11. Noise pollution in populated areas
Noise pollution, especially in populated urban areas, represents another manifestation of the commons’ dilemma. Individuals and businesses often generate high levels of noise without considering the impact it has on the community at large. Consistent exposure to high noise levels can lead to numerous health effects such as sleep disturbance, cardiovascular diseases, cognitive impairment, and stress-related mental health risks (Basner et al., 2014).
12. Climate change from greenhouse gas emissions
Climate change, driven by excessive greenhouse gas emissions, is arguably the most pressing example of the commons’ tragedy in the contemporary world. Each entity’s decision to emit greenhouse gases contributes to the global total, accelerating climate change despite the shared interest in preventing catastrophic global warming (Ripple et al., 2017). Without global cooperation and adherence to emission reduction protocols, individual choices continue to compound, exacerbating the climate crisis.
13. Invasive species introduction by human activity
The tragedy of the commons is also evident in the introduction of invasive species by human activity. Whether intentional or not, when individuals or corporations import non-native species for personal or commercial use, those species may proliferate and harm local ecosystems (Simberloff et al., 2013). Such disruption can cause permanent changes to biodiversity, upset food chains, and threaten the survival of native species.
14. Destruction of coral reefs from tourism
Destruction of coral reefs from tourism serves as a clear illustration of the tragedy of the commons. Excessive tourist activities such as boating, diving, and direct contact harm the coral reefs, undermining their health and vitality (Hawkins & Roberts, 2019). Despite the shared interest in preserving the rich biodiversity and beauty these reefs have to offer, individual actions driven by short-term tourism profit continue to erode these unique ecosystems.
The overuse of shared internet bandwidth also reflects the tragedy of the commons. Increasing commercial and personal consumption of bandwidth strains networks, especially during peak times, resulting in slower speeds for all users. The common good of smooth, uninterrupted internet access gets undermined by individual demand for high-speed data, which every internet user contributes to.
16. Overconsumption leading to non-renewable resource depletion
Non-renewable resource depletion due to overconsumption can be seen as a global-scale tragedy of the commons. Indiscriminate consumption of fossil fuels, minerals, and other non-renewable resources for personal and economic gains continues to deplete Earth’s finite reserves, threatening long-term sustainability (Sorrell et al., 2010).
17. Pollution of rivers from industrial waste
River pollution via industrial waste discharge offers another compelling instance of Hardin’s theory. Industries often choose to dispose of their waste in rivers, contaminating waterways that are shared by humans and wildlife alike. Despite the shared objective of clean and sustainable water sources, the tendency to prioritize private gain over collective well-being continues, translating to severe water pollution.
18. Wildlife habitat destruction for development
Wildlife habitat destruction due to developmental activities provides a distressing example of the tragedy of the commons. As land is converted into cities, farms, or infrastructure, the destruction disregards the importance of these habitats for the survival of the wildlife therein (Sekercioglu, Loarie, Brenes, Ehrlich, & Daily, 2011). While each construction may not seem significantly detrimental to the overall ecosystem, the accumulative effect leads to substantial habitat loss.
19. Ocean pollution due to plastic waste
Ocean pollution due to plastic waste is a modern day tragedy of the commons. Despite the oceans being a shared resource, individual actions and negligence have resulted in the accumulation of enormous amounts of plastic waste, posing a threat to marine life and ecosystems (Law & Thompson, 2014). The world’s oceans are now replete with microplastics, particles smaller than 5mm, which are ingested by marine organisms, thereby entering food chains and causing far-reaching ecological impacts.
20. Depletion of ozone layer from CFCs
The depletion of the ozone layer due to Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) is yet another example of the tragedy of the commons. The ozone layer, a shared global resource, is progressively being depleted by human-made CFCs. Although each individual CFC molecule is minute, billions of them collectively damage the ozone layer, illustrating how individual actions contribute to a global problem (Solomon, 2016).
21. Soil erosion from unsustainable farming
Soil erosion due to unsustainable farming practices provides a crucial perspective on the tragedy of the commons. To maximize crop yields, farmers often resort to methods like excessive tilling and monoculture, which degrade the soil over time. Semmens et al., (2019) in their study emphasized how these individual approaches can lead to a collective loss of fertile land, jeopardizing future agricultural productivity.
22. Overpopulation causing resource scarcity
Overpopulation leading to resource scarcity is an example of the tragedy of the commons on a macro scale. Rapid population growth puts tremendous strain on common resources like water, food, and energy. As more people utilize these finite resources, their availability for future use diminishes, leading to a potential crisis (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 2017).
23. Illegal dumping of waste materials
Illegal dumping of waste materials reflects the tragedy of the commons at its core – where individuals or organizations dispose of their waste illegally in public or environmentally sensitive areas to avoid disposal costs, causing environmental pollution and health risks, and depreciating the value of the shared environment. A cumulative pattern of such actions leads to shared public areas becoming polluted and unmanageable, thus violating the shared communal interest for clean public spaces.
24. Overexploitation of minerals causing scarcity
The overexploitation of minerals illustrates a significant tragedy of the commons. While it brings economic profit for miners and industries, it depletes finite mineral resources and can lead to a scarcity of essential metals and industrial minerals (Prior, Giurco, Mudd, Mason, & Behrisch, 2012). With every individual acting in their interests, the collective resource gets closer to exhaustion, revealing a shortfall in common good stewardship.
25. Overcrowding in public transport systems
Overcrowding in public transport systems also manifests the tragedy of the commons. Each individual’s decision to use public transport, especially during peak hours, contributes to the congestion and overcrowding. This reduces the comfort and efficiency of travel for everyone and potentially increases the stress and fatigue of everyday commuting. It demonstrates how self-interested choices can degrade the quality of communal facilities.
26. Global health pandemics due to inadequate disease control
The tragedy of the commons can be perceived in global health pandemics as well. The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, has demonstrated how individual behaviors can influence the course of contagious diseases. As stated by Maaravi (2021), even when health guidelines advise social distancing and mask-wearing, individuals neglecting these warnings can lead to widespread virus transmission, endangering public health at a global scale.
Impacts of the Tragedy of the Commons
Environmental science provides insights into the implications of the tragedy of the commons, one of which being environmental degradation that results from the overuse or poor management of public goods and common resources.
As evidenced by the Amazon rainforest deforestation for agriculture (Fearnside, 2015), self-interested use of common resources can lead to the ultimate destruction of those very resources, creating widespread ecological, economic, and societal impacts.
The tragedy of the commons thus demonstrates the importance of effective governance in managing public goods and common resources.
It underpins the need for regulatory measures aimed at sustainable use of these goods and resources, without which society could suffer the consequences of resource depletion (Ostrom, 2010).
Therefore, models of governance are vital to counteract the potential implications of the tragedy of the commons.
As a young and impressionable student, I was curious about the concept of libertarianism – live and let live. But the tragedy of the commons demonstrates the limits of a libertarian mindset. Sometimes, we need to come together and reach agreements to ensure sustainability.
Academic and research fields such as environmental science and economic science have underlined the importance of sustainable management and effective governance in mitigating the possible repercussions of the tragedy of the commons and emphasize the need for actions that reflect long-term sustainability in preference to short-term gains.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]