The tragedy of the commons

Take a moment during this season of good will to all to ponder the tragedy of the commons. A “commons” is a commonly held field. It was traditional in Britain for certain parcels of land to be held in common by the community. Commons could be used by anyone who needed extra pasture for their animals. Early in the 19th century, William Lloyd Foster, a political economist–a member of a very new profession that led to political science, economics, and ecology, among other fields–noticed that common land tended to be poorly maintained.

Why? Because it was in each individual’s interest to maximize the profit he reaped from use of the common land. One farmer added another cow or sheep to those grazing in the commons–after all, he wasn’t paying for the grass his animals were eating–and others did the same. Before long, the land was overgrazed and useless to everyone. In 1968 in a seminal article in Science magazine, Garrett Hardin, one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, named this phenomenon “the tragedy of the commons.”

The tragedy of the commons goes on all around us, and it can be stated very simply: “if it belongs to all of us, it belongs to none of is.” Take a few minutes to think about this. What resources do we hold in common? Air, water, parks, to name just a few. Fisheries, wildlife, oceans. The climate. The ability of the earth to sustain human life. They belong to us all. How can we work together to sustain them so they will continue to sustain us?


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