Article in Science / Environment / Ecology
A brief synopsis of why resource conservation is doomed to failure.

The tragedy of the commons is something that Garret Hardin explained a generation ago. He explained the system of the commons in depth. He started by quoting from Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was describing dramatic tragedy. He was attempting to explain that in drama, what was tragic was not the unhappiness of characters, but the inevitability of unhappiness that was tragic. The unhappiness of individuals was merely that which explained the tragedy to audiences. This illustrated Hardin’s point that the system of the commons is a system that, as a system, cannot work.

The best example is the air, no one owns it, everyone uses it and no one is responsible for it. Some other examples of commons tragedies are over fishing the oceans and the over use of common pasture land. In so far as population is less than carrying capacity, the system of the commons works well. But once at carrying capacity, it is to the advantage of the individual herdsman to increase his herd because the detriment of decreasing foodstuffs for each individual herd animal is shared equally among all, the advantage of increased meat production of the individual herdsman is conserved. Problems of over fishing and acid rain traversing national boundaries result from treating oceans and air as commons.

Ignoring the fact that a true tragedy cannot be prevented or averted, strategies for amelioration include, to return to a neolithic subsistence economy, to sell the oceans to private enterprise and to institute global totalitarianism. In a system of the commons, the system will only work if all users are temperate in their use of the commons. How to legislate temperance? This question, also asked by Hardin, is a question of definition. Temperance is by definition a matter of self control. Prohibition taught us the inevitability of enforcing temperance. Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes? This is only the most obvious of problems that ensure inevitability of failure.

Usage of the commons is group behavior; group behavior that provides benefits or reinforces if you will, individual irresponsibility. Any behavior reinforced will increase. Outside of complete privatization of all natural resources, despite the impracticability of erecting fences in the atmosphere and hydrosphere, the only way to prevent the inevitability of tragedy is to internalize the heretofore external costs of pollution. As Hardin has shown, a socialist commissar of production has no more incentive to do this than a capitalist chief executive officer. So, even a totalitarian regime cannot achieve this. But in so far as hydrogen fuel cell technology is more expensive than internal combustion technology, air pollution will continue.

Hardin’s central point was that no matter what we do the commons cannot survive. A system of the commons can no more escape carrying capacity failure than Oedipus’ flight from Corinth to Thebes would allow him to escape his destiny. Hardin also explained the futility of environmentally sensitive education and appeals to the conscience. Because the fault lies in the structure of the system of the commons. If by “give up some of our freedom”, we mean abandoning and dismantling the system of the commons altogether, then this methodology offers some hope. But, in so far as the system of the commons is allowed to exist, tragedy is, by definition, inevitable. In a system of the commons, internalizing environmental costs is impossible; that is the tragedy.


Hardin, Garrett, 1972  Exploring New Ethics for Survival The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle Pelican books

Whitehead, Alfred North  1959 Science and the Modern World Mentor books

Paul A. Bell, Thomas Greene, Jeffrey Fisher, and Andrew S. Baum, 2005 Environmental Psychology Lawerce Erlbaum Assoc.  Mahwah, New Jersey

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Merle E Ackeret
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