Tragedy Of The Commons

Updated on February 1, 2024
Article byAswathi Jayachandran
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

What Is Tragedy Of The Commons?

A tragedy of the commons occurs when a group of people in a community use a shared resource for their self-interest, which leads to the depletion of the resource for the whole community. It is an environmental and economic problem highlighting the conflict between individual and collective rationality.

Tragedy of the commons meaning

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When an individual exercises their rights over a finite natural resource in an uncontrolled manner, other vested parties are affected. This may lead to overconsumption and result in the depletion of resources. The growing concern of overpopulation is the prime contributing factor to such a situation.

Key Takeaways

  • A Tragedy of the Commons is a situation where an ecosystem’s resources run out or deteriorate due to the self-centered actions of some of its members.
  • The concept was initially presented in an essay written in 1833 by British economist William Forster Lloyd. The “tragedy of the commons” became a popular theory not more than a century later, in a 1968 article by Garrett Hardin.
  • The tragedy can be prevented by the community’s capacity to transition from straightforward, self-centered decisions with limited effects to more strategic decisions with broad effects.

Tragedy Of The Commons Explained

A tragedy of the commons definition implies individuals with access to a common resource use their share freely. This exceeds their share and takes up other people’s shares by depleting the resources. Shared resources or public resources are common to the population. However, the self-interest of a few individuals challenges the common good due to their disregard for formal rules and shared social structure.

An example is when a group of cattle owners who use a shared pasture decides to increase their individual number of cattle to maximize profits. Unfortunately, this can lead to overgrazing and eventually deplete the common grazing ground for everyone.

British author William Forster Lloyd initially conceived this economic theory in 1833. However, Garret Hardin originally used the phrase “Tragedy of the commons” in Science Magazine in 1968. From an economic perspective, when people consume resources individually beyond their limit, the resource available for the rest of the community depletes in such situations, and the demand overpowers supply leading to scarcity. The issue also leads to investment problems.

For example, depletion of grazing ground can make the field empty. To rejuvenate the ground, farmers must plant new seeds. They may even have to till the soil and employ workers. These activities need capital to progress.

The theory focuses on explaining an individual’s tendency to choose what they think is best for them, in their self-interest based on personal needs, ignoring the impacts it has on others. These individuals justify their actions by thinking other people will also do the same by not thinking about acting in the group’s interest.

Hardin associated it with the increasing human population. He pointed out two methods of limiting access to resources as solutions to the tragedy of the commons. First, make the resources private possessions. Secondly, framing regulations by passing laws restricting public access to the resources. Other solutions to the tragedy of the commons include curbing overconsumption and identifying sustainable alternatives.

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Let us look at the possible solutions to the tragedy of the commons problem:

Preventing Tragedy of the Commons

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#1 – Identifying sustainable alternatives

In this world of consumerism, some brands disregard sustainable practices. People can practice conscious consumerism here by opting for more practical and environmentally friendly products. While we can do this at the consumer end, governments can come forward with regulations restricting practices that lead to resource depletion. Public goods can avoid the process that involves such practices. The government can impose heavy fines and bans on companies that practice it.

#2 – Curbing overconsumption

In the typical example of cattle grazing, farmers or shepherds can divide the available land into sections and only allow grazing in one section. After the depletion of that section, the herd can move to the next section. When the other sections are moved similarly, the earlier sections will have time to replenish. In this way, there will be the promotion of sustainability. However, it is important to be mindful of the level of resources and stop before it gets to extreme scarcity.

#3 – Possessing a sustainable mindset

It may be difficult to avoid the tragedy of the commons. However, practicing a sustainable mindset can reduce the tendency. Sustainable mindsets aid in being aware of the long-term impact and making mindful decisions. Hence the resource’s users must act collectively and agree to use them judiciously.


Let us look at some tragedy of the commons examples to understand the concept better:

Example #1

Suppose there are village “high wells” facing droughts, and all the water sources have dried up except one pond. The entire living population of the village has to sustain the drought period with this remaining water source. Therefore, everyone has to be mindful and use the available water precariously. Even if one person uses it for unwanted purposes such as washing their cars and watering their lawns, it will reduce the quantity for the rest of the population. Thus limiting the quantity a person can draw from the water body can help maintain the source longer.

Example #2

A pound of edible mushrooms in New forest can cost £25 in restaurants. Demand for them has increased due to the high premiums offered by restaurants. Reports showme in early or late to collect them to make money. The problem is not collecting them but collecting them for commercial purposes to the point where they are pushed to exhaustion. Picking them daily leaves them no room for reproducing (time to allow spores to spread). As a result, no edible mushrooms are now found in the place.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How to prevent the tragedy of the commons?

The collective effort of the community can prevent; on the other hand, individual seals can deviate from the goals of societal good, which can be kept in check by joint efforts. For example, the depletion of fish in a body of water can be prevented by prohibiting fishing during the months of reproduction.

2. What causes the tragedy of the commons?

General disregard for the common good and fulfillment of selfish interests is the reason. This occurs when people choose short-term needs rather than thinking about the big picture.

3. Who wrote the tragedy of the commons?

The British economist William Forster Lloyd first introduced the idea in an essay he wrote in 1833. Over a century later, a 1968 article by Garrett Hardin helped popularize the idea as the “Tragedy of the commons.”

4. How to solve the tragedy of the commons?

It can be solved by finding alternatives or adapting sustainable practices through collective efforts and preventing overconsumption.

This has been a guide to What is Tragedy Of The Commons and its definition. Here, we explain it in detail, its solutions, and examples. You may also find some useful articles here:

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