"Tragedy of the Commons" - have you heard of it?

The Murray Darling Basin in Australia is reportedly relied upon by 2.6 million people and contributes 24 billion dollars to the economy. The Murray Darling Basin is also a depleting water resource resulting in animals dying, farmers going out of business, and whole communities under threat of having to move. It’s been described, and long recognised, as an environmental disaster.

The conflicts of interest between Australian States and Territories regarding the Murray Darling Basin was referred to in a recent meeting as an example of “the tragedy of the commons in action”. Most people in the group understood what the comment meant, some didn’t.

Hardin’s 1968  “Tragedy of the Commons” is a seminal paper which is why the phrase has become an integral part of discussions pertaining to sustainability  - and why all those who have dealings involving sustainability would benefit from being familiar with the phrase and its meaning.

It’s been summarized like this:

The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource through their collective action.

The theory 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 due to a paper written by the American biologist and philosopher, Garrett Hardin in 1968.

In the modern economic context, "commons" is taken to mean any shared and unregulated resource including the atmosphere, oceans, fish stocks, and other shared resources. For example, the  term is used in environmental science. The "tragedy of the commons" is often cited in connection with sustainable development, meshing economic growth and environmental protection, as well as in the debate over global warming.


Do you find yourself reading that description and thinking “Yes, I’m aware of that”? Great! – then the next question is what to do about the global situation that has been described as “a race to the bottom” in terms of environmental impacts? When all the commissioner reports, media debates, and ringing-of-hands are done, what are the practical, financially-feasible and politically-palatable options? That’s another question of course but in the meantime, it’s worth taking a moment to be sure we’re all familiar with what’s meant when someone in your next meeting refers to “the tragedy of the commons”.