The Tragedy of the Commons

by Simon. Average Reading Time: almost 5 minutes.

The tragedy of the commons refers to a dilemma described in an influential article by that name written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968. The article describes a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

Central to Hardin’s article is an example, of a hypothetical and simplified situation from medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.


The metaphor illustrates the argument that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. 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 borne by all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball to the point that the resource is depleted (even if it retains a capacity to recover). The rate at which exhaustion of the resource is realized depends primarily on three factors: the number of users wanting to consume the common in question, the consumptiveness of their uses, and the relative robustness of the common.

Modern Commons

The tragedy of the commons can be applied to environmental issues such as sustainability. The commons dilemma stands as a model for a great variety of resource problems in society today, such as water, land, fish, and non-renewable energy sources like oil and coal. When water is used at a higher rate than the reservoirs are replenished, fish consumption exceeds its reproductive capacity, or oil supplies are exhausted, then we face a tragedy of the commons.

However, the commons that is likely to have the greatest impact on our lives in the new century is the digital commons, the information available on the Internet through the companies that provide access. The problem with digital information is the mirror image of the original grazing commons: Information is no longer costly to generate and organise. However, the information that is provided is inadequately catalogued and organised, whilst its value to individual consumers is too dispersed and small to establish an effective market. Furthermore, the Internet tends to fill with low-value information: The products that have high commercial value are marketed through revenue-producing channels, and the Internet becomes inundated with products that cannot command these values. Self-published books and music are good examples of this.

It is suggested that management of the digital commons is the most critical issue of market design that our market faces with several business models, all based around charging for content or access to content, being muted. This raises the issue of Network Neutrality. The free-spirited Internet user may balk at the market models in which consumers pay for content either through an ISP or monopoly control of information.


Historical studies have shown that Hardin’s account of the breakdown of common grazing land was inaccurate, and that such commons were effectively managed to prevent overgrazing.

More significantly, controversy has been fueled by the application of Hardin’s ideas to current policy issues. In particular, some authorities have read Hardin’s work as specifically advocating the privatisation of commonly owned resources. Consequently, resources that have traditionally been managed communally by local organisations have been enclosed or privatised. Ostensibly, this serves to protect such resources, but it ignores the pre-existing management, often appropriating resources and alienating indigenous (and frequently poor) populations. In effect, private or state use may result in worse outcomes than the previous commons management.

Net neutrality advocates argue that allowing companies, or what is termed content gatekeepers, to demand a toll to guarantee quality or premium delivery would create and unfair business model. Advocates warn that by charging every Web site, from the smallest blogger to Google, network owners may be able to block competitor Web sites and services, as well as refuse access to those unable to pay.

One of the enchanting features of the Internet is its ability to harness free-wheeling innovation. ignoring network neutrality in favour of market models is bad news for innovation.

The web’s extreme openness, its capacity to allow anyone to connect to virtually anyone else, generates untold possibilities for collaboration. The more connected we are, the richer we should become (not just monetarily). This is because we will be able to connect to a diverse number of people, across continents, to combine their ideas, talents and resources in a way that should benefit everyone.

As Charles Leadbeater suggests in his book, We Think, the Web’s potential for good stems from the open, collaborative culture it inherited from its birthplace in the counter-culture of the 1960s, combined with folk culture and the commons as a shared basis for productive endeavour.

The Web allows for a massive expansion in individual participation in culture and the economy, all working towards solving issues such as the tradegy of the commons.

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