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Tragedy of the Commons: Hardin’s mistake

‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ stems from Garrett Hardin’s influential article of 1968 in which he referred to all common-pool natural resources that were not government or privately owned. As a metaphor, he envisioned a pasture open to all, in which each herder received an immediate individual benefit from adding animals to graze on the pasture and suffered only delayed costs (with his fellow herders) from overgrazing. Hardin (1968) concluded: ‘Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons’.

Hardin further states that ‘in a reverse way, the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution’. He writes:

The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them’. Since this is true for everyone, ‘we are bound to “foul our own nest”, so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers’ (Hardin, 1968). Hardin gives an example in the development of maritime fisheries. ‘Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the “freedom of the seas”. Professing to believe in the “inexhaustible resources of the oceans”, they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction’ (Hardin, 1968).

Avoidance of the tragedy of the commons, according to Hardin, would require coercive laws, but should be a ‘mutual coercion’ agreed by the majority of people. Most importantly, he argued, there is a need for coercion over reproduction: ‘The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognise, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all’ (Hardin, 1968). He also states ‘to couple the concept of freedom to breed with equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action’ (Hardin, 1968). Many authors have pointed out that Hardin mistakenly wrote ‘commons’ when he meant ‘open access’.

According to Vatn (2005), any property regime except open access – be it private, common or state/public property – may have very precise rules or norms establishing the necessary incentives for resource use. However, such property regimes also have incentive problems when externalities appear due to the ‘fact that resources and natural processes are interconnected – linking various resource uses necessarily to waste production’. In economic terms, he states that if it were possible to costlessly demarcate all streams of benefits, all processes, there would be no external effects. Each agent would own and consume only his or her own parts. However, given the existing interrelations in natural resource systems, this is impossible. Moreover, even if it were possible, it would ruin the quality of the resources, since their very functioning depends on their working together.

Evidence from the field and from research around the world (often led by Elinor Ostrom) has emerged to show the multiple rules-in-use found in successful commons regimes around the world. To be effective, rules must be generally known and understood, considered relatively legitimate, generally followed, and enforced.

Effective, sustainable community management of common property natural resources is also more likely to occur when the boundary of the resource is easy to identify, changes in the state of the resource can be monitored at a relatively low cost, the rate of change in resource condition and in the socioeconomic and technological conditions of users remains moderate, communities maintain frequent social interactions with each other that increase trust within the community (thereby increasing social capital), outsiders can be relatively easily excluded from accessing the resource (preventing large-scale invasion of the resource by outsiders), and rule infractions are monitored and sanctioned (Nagendra and Ostrom, 2008).


Hardin, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162 (3859) 1243-1248.

Nagendra, H., Ostrom, E. (Lead Authors) and Saundry, P. (Topic Editor) (2008): Governing the commons in the new millennium: A diversity of institutions for natural resource management. In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth November 16, 2007; Last revised August 12, 2008; Retrieved November 11, 2012]. Governing the commons in the new millennium: A diversity of institutions for natural resource management

Vatn, A. (2005) Institutions and the Environment, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

For further reading:

Ostrom, E. (2007) Challenges and growth: the development of the interdisciplinary field of institutional analysis. Journal of Institutional Economics 3 (3) 239–264

Useful websites:

Gaia Watch of the UK []

Stockholm whiteboard seminars: ‘Beyond the tragedy of the commons’ by Elinor Ostrom []

This glossary entry is based on contributions by Willi Haas, Simron Jit Singh and Annabella Musel

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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