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 atmosphere, oceans, rivers, 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.
Clearing rainforest for agriculture in southern Mexico.
More general examples (some alluded to by Hardin) of potential and actual tragedies include:
- Planet Earth ecology
- Uncontrolled human population growth leading to overpopulation.
- Atmosphere, through the release of pollution that leads to ozone depletion, global warming, ocean acidification (by way of increased atmospheric CO2 being absorbed by the sea), and particulate pollution
- Light pollution – with the loss of the night sky for research and cultural significance, affected human, flora and fauna health, nuisance, trespass and the loss of enjoyment or function of private property.
- Water – Water pollution, water crisis of over-extraction of groundwater and wasting water due to overirrigation
- Forests – Frontier logging of old growth forest and slash and burn
- Energy resources and climate – Environmental residue of mining and drilling, Burning of fossil fuels and consequential global warming
- Animals – Habitat destruction and poaching leading to the Holocene mass extinction
- Oceans – Overfishing
- Human and wildlife conflict.
- Human health
- A preference for sons made people abort foetal girls. This results in an imbalanced sex ratio.
- indoor air
- Antibiotics – Antibiotic Resistance Mis-use of antibiotics anywhere in the world will eventually result in antibiotic resistance developing at an accelerated rate. The resulting antibiotic resistance has spread (and will likely continue to do so in the future) to other bacteria and other regions, hurting or destroying the Antibiotic Commons that is shared on a worldwide basis
- Vaccines – Herd immunity Avoiding a vaccine shot and relying on the established herd immunity instead will avoid potential vaccine risks, but if everyone does this, it will diminish herd immunity and bring risk to individuals that cannot receive vaccines for medical reasons.
- Publicly shared resources
- Spam email degrades the usefulness of the email system and increases the cost for all users of the Internet while providing a benefit to only a tiny number of individuals.
- Wi-Fi and its overcrowded 2.4 GHz channels.
- Vandalism and littering in public spaces such as parks, recreation areas, and public restrooms.
- Hoarding of items such as toilet paper during a perceived threat such as weather events or disease epidemics results in a few people having excess and many people not having enough.
- Knowledge commons encompass immaterial and collectively owned goods in the information age, including, for example:
- Electric vehicle (EV) charging station blocked by parked vehicles, ICE vehicles whose drivers resent EVs, EVs that overstay time limits, and EVs whose owners have no intention of charging but feel they are entitled to park.
- Space debris in Earth’s surrounding space leading to limited locations for new satellites and the obstruction of universal observations.
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