Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individuals acting in their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all others by depleting or spoiling a shared resource through their collective action. The phenomenon was first described by the British economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833. Lloyd observed that because grazing on the commons (fields that were open to anyone) was free, the land was spoiled, which diminished the value of the fields for everyone. Can you think of a free resource that’s possibly subject to the same tragedy? Sharks might!

“…I did not know this had a term. I have been pondering about this issue for so long…Thanks for sharing good knowledge such as this.”

– EonWhite
The full story
Tragedy of the commons

For 400 million years sharks and other fish have been living in our oceans. Us Humans have been around for just about 300,000 years.

Plastic came along only very recently, but if we were to continue to pollute the oceans at the current pace, it will take less than 30 years before there is more plastic in the waters as there is fish.

To put this into perspective:

Imagine sharks have been on this planet for one whole year. Just within the last 15 seconds before midnight on December 31st, we would’ve managed to pollute their natural habitat.

To sharks this is a tragedy — a tragedy of the commons.

origin of the theory
Grazing rule by Lloyd

The theory originated in an essay written in 1833 by the British economist William Forster Lloyd.

Lloyd argued that if a herder led a large herd of cattle onto a plot of common land to graze, also known as commons, overgrazing could happen.

For each additional cow, the owner of that cow could receive additional benefits, while all other herders share the resulting damage.

There are three possible solutions that could help with this.

social norms
Social Norms

Social norms and a common understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong is probably our best bet. The Swiss Alps region for example has been run by a collective of farmers for hundreds of years. As it is in the interest of all the farmers to keep the commons functioning, complex social norms emerged, and over time became traditions. But when people don’t share the same values, or new people arrive, such social contracts often fall apart and other solutions can help.


Privatization. Turning common property into a private one can give the owner an incentive to ensure its sustainability. If that happens it’s important that the party who now owns that common — or rights of access — pays the full price for its exploitation. Privatization works well for things that can be fenced off, such as land, but less so for water or air.

If someone creates negative externalities on private land but doesn’t pay the full price of such externality, we need to turn to the third solution

State Regulation
State Regulation

State Regulation, such as farming permits, can limit the amount of commons available to everyone and thereby protect them. Fishing quotas can ensure that those that take, also pay the bill. Taxes can create financial incentives by increasing the costs for creating negative externalities, such as polluting the air. Regulation can make exploitation not only more costly, tax incomes can also be used to invest in initiatives that help reverse the damage done.

Possible solution
Solution to plastic problem

For complex problems, such as the plastic in our oceans, we probably need a combination of all three.

We can help create awareness, so we all feel morally obliged to reduce our personal use of non recyclable plastics.

We could ask large producers of single use plastics to take full responsibility for the mess their products create by dedicating resources to help clean up.

Countries could commit to local and international agreements that regulate the production of single use plastic and other pollutants.

share you thought
Share ur though_Tragedy of the commons

The grazing rules which were established in Switzerland in 1517 are still enforced today. They state that “no one is permitted to send more cows to the Alps than he can feed in winter”. Applying the same rules to plastics, would mean no state ought to produce more plastic than they can recycle within the confines of their own borders. What do you think, would a similar solution work for the oceans? And if not, what else can we do to protect the commons from the tragedy that’s unfolding? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Dig deeper!

  • Bruce Yandle talks about the tragedy of the commons and the ways that people have avoided the overuse of resources that are held in common. Examples discussed in this econtalk include fisheries, roads, rivers and the air. 
  •  Learn about carbon tax as a solution for polluting the air and reducing carbon emissions. Carbon taxes are intended to make visible the “hidden” social costs of carbon emissions, which are otherwise felt only in indirect ways like more severe weather events.

Classroom exercise

Don’t Kill The Rabbit! To experience the tragedy of the commons first hand, here is a group game. 

The game has four elements:

  • A circle = the commons
  • Participants = farmers
  • Carrots = food
  • Rabbits = animals to be fed

Getting started:

  • Choose a number of people (say 5) to do this exercise with.
  • On an erasable board, draw a circle, then draw carrots in it (say 20). 
  • Give each participant a secret note with a number on it (say: 1, 3, 1, 1, 4). This number represents how many rabbits each participant has to feed. Each rabbit needs to eat at least one carrot per round to stay alive.
  • Ask participants, one after the other, to take as many carrots from the circle as they want. At the end of the round, double the amount of all the carrots that are left.
  • Then continue to play round after round until all carrots are gone and the first rabbit dies.

The first time you do this, make sure you have exactly twice as many carrots as there are rabbits to feed so that if everyone picks just what they need (the carrots are replenished). What do you observe? Are the commons being depleted and do the rabbits die?

Try to do this again with a different number of carrots, letting participants tell each other how many rabbits they are feeding, or with settings we haven’t thought of. Let us know what you observe in the comments below. 

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