The Tragedy of The Commons

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 that cause carbon emissions will eventually lead to overwhelming damage to the atmosphere.

Another burgeoning environmental problem that provides a real life example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is that of overfishing and whaling. Hardin explains that for many years, people believed in ‘freedom of the seas’ and this led to oceans and inhabitants of the oceans being treated as an inexhaustible resource like the commons in Hardin’s theory.[9] The ‘freedom of the seas’ is a dangerous belief as this allows fishing boats to catch as many fish as possible in order to maximise profit. The eventual depletion of the fish stock not only affects the fishing industry but everyone else as well.[10] This is also true with whaling, as though only a comparatively small amount of countries hunt whales for profit, they have been successful in bringing some species to near extinction which affects and angers other countries in the world.

The key to overcoming the ‘tragedy of the commons’ suggests De Young is ‘restraining both consumption and access’ to CPRs.[11] In practical terms however CPRs provide too much profit both publicly and privately to be completely restricted. Pease suggest that sustainable development is the ultimate goal, ‘to maintain stable economic growth without condemning environment and permanently depleting sources.’[12] To ensure sustainable development, three types of governance of the resources can be used: hierarchical, market-based and community.

Hierarchal or bureaucracy style governance is explained by Lamour as a top-down system, where an authoritarian organisation enforces policies, rules and regulations. In a perfect administration there is easy access to information between different branches of the organisation and rules created are enforced with perfect obedience.  This however is rarely the case. For Hardin’s theoretical ‘commons’ problem, Lamour suggests a hierarchal solution would be to set up a ‘range management authority’ which would enforce compulsory taxation and quotas and fine herdsmen for exceeding herds limits.[13] Hardin also suggested taxation as a coercive approach rather than forbidding the use of commons.[14] De Young however argues that any sort of authoritarian control over a resource will not enjoy perfect obedience among those used to using the commons uninhibited. There is also still a risk in the authoritarian figure making the wrong resource allocation decisions.[15] Pease also makes the point that the authoritarian figure must make unbiased judgements on restriction based on preserving the resource, for a hierarchal approach to work.[16]

The market based approach to governance involves using what are traditionally seen as market techniques from the private sector as tools for governance in the public sector. Lamour explains that order emerges from the decentralised decisions of many actors based around making profit by buying and selling. For a freely competitive market to work there must be a large number of actors, who are able to pay for what they want, who are free to enter and leave the market and have access to information about prices and products. This perfect market situation is very rare and the absence of these conditions leads to what are termed ‘market failures’.[17] The privatisation of property is a market principle which has been suggested for dealing with the ‘tragedy’.[18] It would be in the best interest of property owners to ensure that their ‘pasture’ is managed well and conserved.[19] Privatisation however may also pose further problems as the owners of the property have the right to treat the land as they like. Private companies may give into the temptation to exhaust their resource for quick profit.[20] Pease explains that for real life examples of ‘commons’ such as the ocean, privatisation takes the form of licenses. Therefore one is given the right to fish, but the regulation of these licences still requires a managing authority and this means that licenses are not particularly affective in ensuring sustainable development.

The final method of governance used to deal with overcoming the ‘tragedy’, is community focused. This is a bottom-up approach where the labour and the results of the labour are shared among a ‘community’ of like minded people who all agree on appropriate behaviour. Importantly punishments for inappropriate behaviour are dealt with amongst the community and not by a centralised authoritarian figure.[21] Community style governance works because of the trust and mutual adjustment of behaviour shared amongst those involved.[22] De Young cites studies by Ostrom (1990, 1992) in explaining how real life communities in Japan, Spain and the Philippines have used community principles to manage grazing, irrigation and forestry systems. Especially important to these systems are the adaptability of regulations and allowance of local input when reworking them and the way in which the monitoring of adherence to regulations is shared by all. Each ‘community’ shares a CPR which is part of a larger network of systems managed by other communities.[23] The theory behind the ‘community’ or collective action approach to governing CPRs is backed by the logic that people will be more likely to conserve resources if they believe that there are long term benefits to doing so and others around them are regulated evenly.[24]

It seems that community based governance can be effective in overcoming the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in terms of small scale CPRs. Global warming is however considered a global externality of economic activity and international cooperation is needed to ensure sustainable development. So far this cooperation has failed to happen as can be seen by the shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol.[25] The 2001 Kyoto conference did however introduce the idea of buying and selling permits that give individuals and businesses the right to pollute.[26] The idea of an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), ‘allows market forces, rather than government forces’ to determine the price of carbon emissions.[27] Garnaut explains that an ETS places caps on carbon emissions over a specified amount of time by only releasing a certain number of permits that allow the right to release carbon. This gives businesses the choice to either cut down on carbon emissions by investing in new technologies or buy more carbon permits. The price of these permits is found by the natural workings of the market in which businesses buy or sell the permits depending on their needs.[28] Unfortunately the Rudd government’s proposed ETS bill was greatly ‘watered down’ compared to Garnaut’s scheme and failed to pass through the senate. According to Garnaut, it provided too much lenience to emissions-intensive businesses that were to be given free carbon permits.[29] An ETS has been implemented amongst European Union countries and is starting to show some signs of producing innovation and lowering emissions after a slow start to trading because of over allocation of permits.[30]

The market based approach of governance has not been applied to the earth’s whaling problem. Instead the International Whaling Commission (IWC), a bureaucratic from of governance, has been set up to foster international relations. The IWC aims to set up whale sanctuaries, specify hunting seasons, regulate capture of young and female whales and set quotas on whale kills. It is however ineffective on occasion due to problems often encountered with hierarchal governance. As many countries have a whaling industry it is not possible for all members to be like minded in their goals. Also perfect obedience of regulations is not enjoyed as those countries who object to certain limitations may ignore them.[31] A more effective program to stop overfishing, has been implemented in Chile. A cooperative community approach has been taken up by fishermen and scientists who are trading information on how best to manage fish stocks. This has led to new laws on fishing imposed by the Chilean government. This type of governance could have further use to help with overfishing in other areas of the world.[32]

No one type of governance is most effective when aiming to overcome the ‘tragedy of the commons’. All three types cannot cater for every need of sustainable development and each has its own negatives and failures. It seems that community based governance is effective in small area management of CPRs, as can be seen by Ostrom’s work and the cooperation of scientists and fisherman in Chile. However often community regulations still needs a central authoritarian figure to impose them when large areas of CPRs are involved, as with whaling. In terms of global warming it is arguably hierarchal failures in implementing an ETS that are causing the lack of emissions cuts. For sustainable development in all areas to become successful, different properties of each type of governance must be combined to create well formed schemes. This is the key to overcoming the ‘tragedy of the commons.’

Bibliography:

ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies, “Ending the Oceans’ ‘Tragedy of the Commons’”, Science Daily, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100914095930.htm, 2010 (accessed 20 September 2010).

De Young, R., ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, in Enclopedia of Environmental Science, edited by D.E Alexander and R.W Fairbridge. Hingham: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999.

Hardin, Garret, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science 162, 1968.

Johnson, Craig, Arresting Development: The Power of Knowledge for Social Change, New York: Routledge, 2009.

Jotzo, Frank, ‘Climate Policy: Where To and How?’,  Agenda 14, no.1, 2007.

Keohane, Nathaniel and Sheila Olmstead, Markets and the Environment, Washington D.C.: Island Press 2007.

Lamour, Peter, ‘Models of Governance and Public Administration’, International Review of Administrative Science 36, 1997.

Pease, Kelly-Kate S., International Organisations: Perspectives on Governance in the Twenty-First Century. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education Inc., 2008.

Pietsch, Juliet and Ian McAllister, ‘A Diabolical Challenge: Public Opinion and Climate Change Policy in Australia', Environmental Politics 19, no.2, 2010.

Post-Courier, ‘Garnaut Slams Rudd’s Climate Change Plan’, Post-Courier Online, http://www.postcourier.com.pg/20081222/business01.htm, 2008 (accessed 20 September 2010).

Reuters, ‘European Carbon Scheme is a Success, Research Says’, Thompson Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE61B2AL20100212, 2010 (accessed 20 September 2010).

Rhodes. Ross, ‘The New Governance: Governing Without Governent’, in Public Governance, edited by M. Bevir, London: Sage Publications, 2007, 1-19.

Ross Garnaut, ‘Garnaut Climate Change Review: Interim Report to the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments of Australia’,  The Commonwealth of Australia, http://garnautreview.org.au/CA25734E0016A131/WebObj/GarnautClimateChangeReviewInterimReport-Feb08/$File/Garnaut%20Climate%20Change%20Review%20Interim%20Report%20-%20Feb%2008.pdf, 2008 (accessed 20 September 2010).


[1] G. Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science 162, (1968): 1243-1248.

[2] R. De Young, ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, in Enclopedia of Environmental Science, eds. D.E Alexander and R.W Fairbridge, (Hingham: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999).

[3] C. Johnson, Arresting Development: The Power of Knowledge for Social Change, (New York: Routledge, 2009), 31-32.

[4] R. De Young, ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

[5] N. Keohane and S. Olmstead, Markets and The Environment, (Washington D.C.: Island Press 2007), 67.

[6] G. Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.

[7] Kelly-Kate S. Pease, International Organizations: Perspectives on Governance in the Twenty-First Century (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education Inc., (2008), 229.

[8] F. Jotzo, ‘Climate Policy: Where To and How?’,  Agenda 14, no.1 (2007): 159.

[9]G. Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.

[10] Kelly-Kate S. Pease, International Organizations: Perspectives on Governance in the Twenty-First Century, 226.

[11] R. De Young, ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

[12] Kelly-Kate S. Pease, International Organizations: Perspectives on Governance in the Twenty-First Century, 227.

[13] P. Lamour, ‘Models of Governance and Public Administration’, International Review of Administrative Science 36, (1997): 383-394.

[14] G. Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.

[15] R. De Young, ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

[16] Kelly-Kate S. Pease, International Organizations: Perspectives on Governance in the Twenty-First Century, 226.

[17] P. Lamour, ‘Models of Governance and Public Administration’.

[18] R. Rhodes, ‘The New Governance: Governing Without Governent’, in Public Governance, ed. M. Bevir (London: Sage Publications, 2007).

[19] P. Lamour, ‘Models of Governance and Public Administration’.

[20] R. De Young, ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

[21] P. Lamour, ‘Models of Governance and Public Administration’.

[22] R. Rhodes, ‘The New Governance: Governing Without Governent’.

[23] R. De Young, ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.

[24] C. Johnson, Arresting Development: The Power of Knowledge for Social Change, 32.

[25] F. Jotzo, ‘Climate Policy: Where To and How?’.

[26] Kelly-Kate S. Pease, International Organizations: Perspectives on Governance in the Twenty-First Century 245.

[27] F. Jotzo, ‘Climate Policy: Where To and How?’.

[28]Ross Garnaut, ‘Garnaut Climate Change Review: Interim Report to the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments of Australia’,  The Commonwealth of Australia, http://garnautreview.org.au/CA25734E0016A131/WebObj/GarnautClimateChangeReviewInterimReport-Feb08/$File/Garnaut%20Climate%20Change%20Review%20Interim%20Report%20-%20Feb%2008.pdf, 2008 (accessed 20 September 2010).

[29] Post-Courier, ‘Garnaut Slams Rudd’s Climate Change Plan’, Post-Courier Online, http://www.postcourier.com.pg/20081222/business01.htm, 2008 (accessed 20 September 2010).

[30] Reuters, ‘European Carbon Scheme is a Success, Research Says’, Thompson Reuters, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE61B2AL20100212, 2010 (accessed 20 September 2010).

[31] Kelly-Kate S. Pease, International Organizations: Perspectives on Governance in the Twenty-First Century 247.

[32] ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies, “Ending the Oceans’ ‘Tragedy of the Commons’”, Science Daily, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100914095930.htm, 2010 (accessed 20 September 2010).

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