Tragedy of the commons

The tragedy of the commons describes a situation in economic science when individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action. The concept originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd, who used a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a “common”) in Great Britain and Ireland. The concept became widely known as the “tragedy of the commons” over a century later after an article written by Garrett Hardin in 1968.

In a modern economic context, “commons” is taken to mean any open-access and unregulated resource such as the atmosphereoceansrivers, ocean fish stocks, or even an office refrigerator. In a legal context, it is a type of property that is neither private nor public, but rather held jointly by the members of a community, who govern access and use through social structures, traditions, or formal rules.

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More general examples (some alluded to by Hardin) of potential and actual tragedies include:

Application to evolutionary biology

A parallel was drawn recently between the tragedy of the commons and the competing behaviour of parasites that through acting selfishly eventually diminish or destroy their common host. The idea has also been applied to areas such as the evolution of virulence or sexual conflict, where males may fatally harm females when competing for matings.

The idea of evolutionary suicide, where adaptation at the level of the individual causes the whole species or population to be driven extinct, can be seen as an extreme form of an evolutionary tragedy of the commons. From an evolutionary point of view, the creation of the tragedy of the commons in pathogenic microbes may provide us with advanced therapeutic methods.

Read more here: Tragedy of the commons – Wikipedia

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