Background

Picture this: It’s the 1950s. There are very few regulations in place regarding the hunting of wild animals – it’s a free-for-all. You are a hunter in Kenya, seeking to shoot down some elephants in order to sell their ivory tusks for a huge profit. You know that there are hundreds of other hunters camping in the same area of the Kenyan grasslands as you. Each hunter (including yourself) kills as many elephants as they can out of their own selfish desire to get rich. What are the consequences? 

Explanation

If everyone hunted elephants in moderation, only harvesting just enough ivory to make a decent living, then there would be more than enough of these huge mammals to satisfy all the hunters and still maintain a healthy elephant population in Kenya. In reality, every hunter primarily thinks about how they can maximize their personal benefits, and so no one really considers how their actions might impact other hunters, the overall Kenyan community, or the grassland ecosystem. As a result, elephants are hunted to the point of endangerment and rarity, so now no one can enjoy the monetary benefits of elephant hunting anymore. 

Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons occurs whenever many people in a community exploit common resources to the point of completely depleting those resources and hurting the entire community. 

The History

The concept of the tragedy of the commons was first discussed by economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833. Lloyd explained that while it pays most of the time to pursue the route of action that is most personally beneficial, if everyone simultaneously and continuously acts only to serve their individual selfish needs, this can lead to everyone’s eventual detriment. The example Lloyd used to illustrate this idea is this: a group of cattle farmers share a piece of land on which their cows can graze. Each farmer knows that the more cows he raises, the more profit he can make when he sells them. However, keeping more cows means greater damage will be done to the grass whenever they graze. If every farmer decides to keep increasing the number of cows in their herd, the land will be overgrazed and the grass will be completely depleted. Lloyd’s idea is that in the short-run, acting solely out of self-interest might work okay, but in the long-term, you should be more considerate of other people because what benefits them will likely benefit you as well.

Why Care?

Environmental destruction and climate change are directly related to the tragedy of the commons. Issues such as overfishing, unregulated logging, and excessive air or water pollution are all examples of humans exploiting the earth’s natural resources. Marine populations as ordinary as bluefin tuna and as exotic as sea turtles are being endangered because people are hunting too many of them at once and not leaving enough time for their species to recover. Similarly, people chop down massive parts of rainforests to harvest wood for fuel or for the creation of furniture. Rainforest habitats are quickly disappearing because human demand for timber vastly outpaces the rate at which trees grow back. Also, huge manufacturing companies across the world all struggle with discarding waste products. The easiest and often the cheapest way to get rid of waste is to dump it into common spaces, like releasing pollution into the air or into large bodies of water. We see that when everyone is only concerned with their own economic profits, common resources are driven to extinction, and the world as a whole suffers.

    Learn More

    1. Feeny, David, et al. “The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later.” Human Ecology, vol. 18, no. 1, Mar. 1990, pp. 1–19. Springer Link, doi:10.1007/BF00889070.
    2. Rankin, Daniel J., et al. “The Tragedy of the Commons in Evolutionary Biology.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution, vol. 22, no. 12, Dec. 2007, pp. 643–51. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.tree.2007.07.009.
    3. Smith, Robert J. “Resolving the Tragedy of the Commons by Creating Private Property Rights in Wildlife.” Cato Journal, vol. 1, 1981, p. 439.
    4. Tornell, Aarón, and Andrés Velasco. “The Tragedy of the Commons and Economic Growth: Why Does Capital Flow from Poor to Rich Countries?” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 100, no. 6, Dec. 1992, pp. 1208–31. journals.uchicago.edu (Atypon), doi:10.1086/261858.

    Think Further

    1. What are some examples of the tragedy of the commons that appear in real life?
    2. What possible solutions to the tragedy of the commons can you think of?
    3. If the tragedy of the commons keeps occurring in our daily lives, make predictions about what the future may look like and what consequences we’d have to deal with. 

    Teacher Resources

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