Tragedy of the commons

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The tragedy of the commons was an article published by Garrett Hardin in the journal Science in 1968.[1] It describes a problem where many people with their own ideas can make something they all share worse, even if no one wants to. For example, even if no one wants to pollute water because that makes it unhealthy, it can still end up like that because so many want to use the water for their own reasons, like washing and throwing away rubbish. Each person thinks that his small bit of pollution of the water is too small to affect the quality of the water, but because there are many people the total effect ends up making the water too polluted for mostly anybody to use for drinking or even washing. This may occur in slums and other overcrowded places like refugee camps.[2]

The idea was not Hardin's, but a person writing in 1833, William Forster Lloyd. In those days people often grazed cows and sheep on common land. Sheep graze more closely than cows. Lloyd pointed out that each sheep added benefited its owner, but made the grazing overall was damaged by overgrazing.[3]

The tragedy of the commons is very clear in modern debates on ecology. It is also a topic in game theory.

References[change | change source]

  1. Hardin, Garrett 1968. "The tragedy of the commons", Science, 162, pp. 1243-1248. Also available here and here.
  2. Shiklomanov I.A. Appraisal and assessment of world water resources. Water International 25(1): 11-32 (2000)
  3. Lloyd, William Forster (1833). Two Lectures on Population. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1972412.