Breath of Clarity

Unpacking the Tragedy of the Commons

According to Garret Hardin, without proper enforcement to mitigate all pollution sources, the tragedy of the commons is going to deplete the world’s resources (1968). In other words, if a common resource such as land, air, and water is without cost, then individual users are all tempted to deplete the total supply of it. For example, in the case multiple shepherds are letting too many sheep graze in the same area, eventually the grass is no longer going to exist, and the collective well-being is undermined. Hardin assumes there is no solution to the population problem which is how he defines the tragedy of the commons (1968). He assumes the population grows exponentially and there is no technical way to increase the available goods as the world is finite (Hardin 1968). From there, he assumes the acquisition of energy is the problem because people demand more than the available amount of goods and rationally seek to maximize individual gain without limit in a world that is limited (Hardin 1968). Finally, he assumes freedom in a commons brings ruin to all (Hardin 1968). His proclaimed remedy to the tragedy is to first get rid of the commons by restricting food gathering, hunting, fishing, and enclosing farm land (Hardin 1968). His remedy also involves people ceasing to improperly dispose waste and no longer tolerating pollution by automobiles, factories, fertilizing operations, and atomic energy installations (Hardin 1968). Crucially, he also assigns a large responsibility to educators in terms of showing people the necessity to no longer see breeding as a freedom (Hardin 1968). Still, he does not have much hope in terms of his remedy becoming a reality.

On the other hand, Elinor Ostrom argues against Hardin’s argument as the former paints an optimistic and empowering vision of the human race’s potential. Ostrom’s theory claims that people are capable of organizing to manage common-pool resources and users often do devise sustainable institutions for governance (1999). She emphasizes more solutions exist than the ones Hardin proposed as socialism and privatization are both associated with more degradation than results from a traditional group-property regime (1999). Creating incentives for users to invest in resources as opposed to overexploitation is a strategy Ostrom suggested as she explains only limiting access to goods can fail if the resource users compete for shares and some are excluded from having the right to use (1999). Ostrom also challenged Hardin’s view of human being directed by self-interest by showing reciprocity can overcome social dilemmas (1999). She also conveys reciprocal cooperation can be established, sustain itself and even grow whereas which challenges Hardin’s lack of hope. Ostrom claims the tragedies of the commons are real, but not inevitable.

While Hardin perceives the commons as a tragedy due to a scattered bunch of individual goals, Ostrom perceives the commons as a challenge evoking creativity amongst people who can be directed to be in the pursuit of a collective goal. Hardin sees the commons as resources depleting in the face of human absorption while Ostrom sees the commons as resources that can be used as tools by humans to make sustainable energy. Ostrom explains educating users about the benefits of resources is going to clearly express the advantages of communal organization. She emphasizes as people understand the commons as a resource system instead of a finite set of goods, they are going to take actions that benefit all.


Hardin, Garrett. 1968. Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162, pp.1243-1248.

Ostrom, Elinor, et al. 1999. Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges. Science 284, pp. 278-282.

Comment by Professor Frank Turina:

I love this point, Mary: “as people understand the commons as a resource system instead of a finite set of goods, they are going to take actions that benefit all.”

For example, I think that users of a communal grassland need to see that grassland as more than just a source of food for their livestock. The grassland is an ecosystem that contains water, soil, wildlife, diverse plant communities, and a host of other natural resources and ensuring enough grass for their livestock requires managing the entire grassland ecosystem. That basic shared understanding is an important part of Ostrom’s framework.

My Reply:

Hi Professor Turina,

I agree, as Ostrom put it, users must highly value the future sustainability of the resource. Also, good point in saying long-term land management involves understanding the terrain’s ecological community. Ostrom mentioned farmer-managed irrigation systems of Nepal are examples of well-managed common pool resources that rely on strong, locally crafted rules as well as evolved norms. She contrasted these with government owned systems built with concrete and steel headworks, compared to the simple mud, stone, and trees used by the farmers. Ostrom went on to convey the cropping intensity achieved by farmer-managed systems is significantly higher than on the government systems. It aligns with the idea technological advancement is not always more fruitful.

Comment by Becca Mccullough:

Hi there! Great post Mary! I feel like people tend to see just what the immediate impact is on them, so that self serving side of being a human. Like Mary says, once people can take a look at the bigger picture and see all the moving parts and understand how everything is interconnected, then the shift to common good may occur. Education definitely will continue to be one of the biggest hurdles in this effort. I feel we are all so connected with each other and have more ways to share information than ever before, that we have an opportunity like never before to spread accurate and concise information with the goal of shifting general understanding from selfish gain to common good.

My Reply:

Hi Becca!

The section of Ostrom’s piece titled “The Evolution of Norms and Design of Rules” has interesting insight about shifting general understanding from selfish gain to common good. She starts by noting the prediction that resource users are led inevitably to destroy common pool resources is based on a model that assumes all individuals are selfish, norm-free, and maximizers of short-run results. Further, she goes on to explain predictions based on this model are not supported in field research or in laboratory experiments in which individuals face a common pool resources problem and are able to communicate, sanction one another, or make new rules. So, the key ingredients in the shift are proper communication and incorporating the public into natural resource management. I appreciate seeing the way Ostrom intertwined the concept of reciprocity into her argument, as well. I agree with your words about the urgent importance of education in this context, as Ostrom explained reciprocal cooperation can be established, sustain itself, and even grow if the proportion of those who always act in a narrow, self- interested manner is initially not too high.