Tragedy of the Commons

All common-pool resources are finite

Established from the work of Garrett Hardin (1968), the “tragedy of the commons” is the theory that all common-pool resources (CPR) are finite and are thus in danger of exploitation and eventual destruction. This is especially true in the case of open access commons such as fisheries or water supplies where resources levels are determined by outside forces (such as nature).

Hardin proposed that without governance individual users will exploit these resources in order to maximize their own benefit. If their rate of use is faster than the time it takes for the resource to replenish their actions will lead to the eventual overuse and destruction of the CPR.

Conventional approaches to avoiding the tragedy of the commons included suggesting that the resource be privately or centrally managed so that they were governed and enforced by a centralized body.

However, Ostrom’s intervention of the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework (IAD) proved that CPR’s could be managed communally. The IAD provides CPR users a tool with which to discuss and implement a system of rules that helps govern sustainable resource extraction among themselves, ultimately avoiding the tragedy of the commons.

Select bibliography

Anderies, John M., and Marco A. Janssen. 2013. Sustaining the Commons. Arizona State University.

Berkes, Fikret. 1985. “Fishermen and The Tragedy of the Commons.” Environmental Conservation 12(3):199-206.

Crowe, Beryl L. 1969. “The Tragedy of the Commons Revisited.” Science 166(3909):1103-1107.

Feeny, David, et al. 1990. “The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later.” Human Ecology 18(1): 1-19.

Hardin, Garrett. 2009. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research 1(3): 243-253.

_____. 1998. “Extensions of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons.’” Science 280(5364): 682-683.

McGinnis, Michael D. 2017. “The IAD Framework in Action: Understanding the Source of the Design Principles in Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons.” Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington Schools of Political Economy, 87-108.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.

_____. 2008. “Tragedy of the Commons.” The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics 2.