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tragedy of the commons

  A metaphor used to illustrate and account for situations in which the depletion of natural resources occurs because individual and collective interests do not coincide and no individual or institution has the power to ensure that they do.

Hardin\'s (1968) classic paper defining the metaphor gives the example of graziers using common land and continually adding to their herds for so long as the marginal return from the additional animal is positive, even though this means that the average return per animal is falling and the resource is being depleted. Indeed, he argues that graziers will be impelled to follow the example of all others and add to their herds in order to maintain overall returns, given the fall in average yield that follows the addition of every further animal. Efficient use of the resource requires its rationing through limitations on herd size but individuals will not altruistically limit their herd sizes unless they know that all others will also (see prisoner\'s dilemma); to ensure that all do requires an external organization (such as the state) with the power to enforce optimal use, thereby ensuring the best interests of both the individuals and the collective.

Hardin\'s metaphor has been extended to a wide range of situations, such as population control (Hardin, 1974). Others have argued that the metaphor\'s applicability depends on the resource in question. Laver (1984, 1986) identified three possible solutions to the problem specified: (a) privatization of the commons, with owners protecting the natural resource in ways that collective owners could not; (b) collective agreements among the users, enforced without the need for external power (as illustrated by Ostrom, 1990); and (c) regulation by an external body. The extent to which the first two are viable strategies for the long-term conservation of the earth\'s natural resources is doubted by many. (Cf. regime theory.) (RJJ)

References Hardin, G. 1968: The tragedy of the commons: the population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality. Science 162: 1243-8. Hardin, G. 1974: Living on a lifeboat. Bioscience 24: 561-8. Laver, M. 1984: The politics of inner space: tragedies of three commons. European Journal of Political Research 12: 59-71. Laver, M. 1986: Public, private and common in outer space. Political Studies 34: 359-73. Ostrom, E. 1990: Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.



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