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Tragedy of the Commons and the Tragedy of Civilization

“Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush,
each pursuing his own best interest in a society
that believes in the freedom of the commons.
Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

— Garrett Hardin


Way back in 1968, an ecologist, Garret Hardin, wrote a now-famous essay for the journal Science called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The idea Hardin presents is relatively simple: Individuals that act independently and rationally according to their own economic self-interest can behave contrary to the best interests of the whole group by taking advantage of common resources. The Tragedy of the Commons is a metaphor used to mean an unconstrained consumption of a shared resource.

The commons refer to resources which can affect or be used by anyone, yet owned by no one, such as air, land, and water. When users of the same common compete for the same resources, that leads to an unsustainable situation. And, that is a tragedy of the commons.

In 1833, the English economist William Forster Lloyd published a pamphlet called “Two Lectures on the Checks to Population,“ which included a hypothetical example of the over-use of a common resource. He uses cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they were each entitled to let their cows graze. He theorized that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing could result. And, for each additional animal, a herder could receive additional benefits, while the whole group shared the resulting damage to the commons. If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.



Hardin’s essay goes on to show that the Malthusian theory, which states that resources like food production will not be able to keep up with growth in the human population, resulting in disease, famine, war, and calamity, is a part of the tragedy of the commons. If population control is left unchecked, the tragedy of widespread poverty and social degradation will inevitably result.

To illustrate the Malthusian theory in action, consider the events on St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea. In August 1944, the U.S. Coast Guard established a small base there. As a backup food supply, they had 29 reindeer shipped to the island. The animals landed in an ungulate paradise: lichen mats four inches thick carpeted large areas of the island. The only predator was the men and they left at the end of the war without having killed any of the reindeer, leaving them to fend for themselves.

In 1957, Dave Klein, biologist working for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, visited the island. At that time, Klein counted 1,350 very fat and happy reindeer. But the dark shadow of Malthus was looming large. Klein returned in 1963 and estimated there were 6.000 in the herd.

But, when Klein returned in the summer of 1966, he and another biologist and botanist found the island covered with skeletons. They counted only 42 live reindeer. There were no fawns and only one sickly looking male. Shortly thereafter, the 32-mile long, four-mile wide island of St. Matthew was barren of reindeer.

But reindeer are migratory animals and can travel more than 3,000 miles per year. Being trapped on an island that offered no more than 1% of that distance, their food supply couldn’t be sustained in the face of their growing population.

Reindeer are not humans, of course, but humans are consuming limited resources at such a rate that they could easily result in a tragedy like the reindeer on St. Matthew Island.

As a way of avoiding similar disasters due to human overpopulation, Hardin argues that if families were solely dependent on their own resources for survival, such that those families that were less respectful of the environment would see their own children starve, then over-breeding would be corrected by nature and there would be no need for the welfare state. He cautions that:

 “To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.”


Even the private ownership of property, which would allow for better management and maintenance of the resources does not always solve the problem. Most of the world runs on a capitalist economy. And self-interest is baked into that system. Owners want profits. Workers want jobs. And all want financial investments and new technologies to grow the economy and improve everyone’s standard of living. But a problem occurs when a segment of the economy misuses a common resource to the detriment of other users.

For example, in California the availability of water from aquifers is declining. These underground water sources are used by farmers for irrigating crops, but when the farmers upstream of the aquifer take too much water, those downstream have too little. The end result is a reduction of this resource to many farmers, which could then reduce the food supply for all, thereby causing an increase in prices. The problem, of course, is the self-interest of the farmers who happen to be upstream.

Another example of self-interest for profit is the storm that hit Texas in February 2021. Record-setting freezing air from a Polar Vortex settled over the Southwest part of the country. It was caused by an increase in global carbon dioxide levels and other heat-trapping compounds. The electric companies in Texas could not keep up with demand and had rolling blackouts or just shut down. As a result, more than 4.5 million homes and businesses were left without power — some for several days. At least 210 people were killed directly or indirectly, with some estimates as high as 702 as a result of the deep freeze. Damages from the blackouts are estimated at over $195 billion.

This event also resulted in food and water shortages. Water service was disrupted for more than 12 million people due to pipes freezing and bursting. Many grocery stores were forced to close due to lack of power and, of the ones that remained open, completely ran out of many basic items like bread, milk, and eggs. Fuel, including gasoline, diesel fuel, propane and butane, was also scarce due to roads being closed or too icy to drive on, affecting both consumers and suppliers.

To add insult to injury, billings for electricity service were many times more than normal. One customer, a special education teacher, received a bill of more than $7,000 for less than a week of electricity.

This catastrophe was an unintended consequence of the Texas legislature. It protected the power companies by allowing them to disconnect from the national power grid and ignore expensive investments in preparing for extreme weather events like the one in February. As the blackouts extended from hours to days, top state lawmakers tried to redeem themselves by calling for investigations into the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, as Texans demanded accountability for the disaster.

The power companies had a fiduciary obligation to assure their customers that the vital resource of electric service was reasonably protected from failure. But that responsibility was trumped by self-interest.

On April 22, 2021, a report from Swiss Re (one of the world’s largest reinsurance companies) titled “The Economics of Climate Change,” says that the effects of global warming could shave 11 percent to 14 percent off global economic output by 2050, compared with growth levels without climate change. That amounts to as much as $23 trillion in reduced annual global economic output worldwide.

Obviously, this gets the attention of the world’s governments. And, most of the advanced nations are members of The Paris Agreement, which is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. Representatives of those countries debate strategies to mitigate the effects of global warming and the related costs. While most countries have taken a number of steps to help deal with this crisis, the United States has been caught up in the cost and tax issues. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “We could have saved the earth, but we were too damn cheap.”



Governance over resources can sometimes be used to help deal with the tragedy of the commons. An article in the Scientific American, “The Tragedy of the Commons, Revisited,” dated November 19, 2018, questions Hardin’s assumptions regarding governance.

“As many scholars recognized, however, Hardin blurred the idea of a resource system (the pasture) with resource governance (open access), and at the same time, confused open access (no constraints) with commons (sharing among community members on terms set by the community). As a result, he significantly underestimated the power of commons as a form of governance.

“Studies of real communities demonstrated that commons governance works in some contexts and fails in others (Ostrom 1990; Ostrom 2005). Communities may develop their own governance institutions, but communities still are embedded in government and market systems. Ostrom’s work provided insights into how and when effective commons can be implemented.

“Commons governance is one way to avoid Hardin’s predicted tragedy, but its practical and normative potential must be evaluated contextually and in comparison, with alternatives. There are no silver bullets, and the myopia of searching for panacea-like solutions only makes things worse. Figuring out how best to successfully cooperate in governing ourselves and our shared environments remains one of the core questions studied in law, economics, political science, sociology and many other related fields today.”

Nonetheless, federal, state and local governments can and do contribute to the pollution that causes a health risk. According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, air pollution from traffic congestion in urban areas contributes to more than 2,200 premature deaths annually in the United States alone. As more people decide that roads and highways are the fastest way to travel to work, more cars end up on the roads, ultimately slowing down traffic and polluting the air.



As this is written, the world is dealing with a pandemic of the Clovid-19 virus. One of the prime obligations of government at all levels is to provide for the protection and safety of its citizens. It’s why there are police departments, building codes, traffic signs, not to mention a strong military, and on and on.

The issue currently is whether mask and vaccine mandates should be made by state and local government to keep their constituents safe or should it be an individual choice. But if the individual choices mean rejection of the mask and vaccine, then they are putting themselves and their community at risk.

For example, wearing a seatbelt is to help keep those driving or riding in a vehicle from being badly hurt or killed in an accident. This is not optional. Those who don’t wear seatbelts are subject to arrest and fine.

The governors of Texas and Florida believe that the wearing of masks and getting vaccinated is an individual choice and should not the mandated. But experience has shown that mask-less and unvaccinated citizens are prime sources of infection to others.

Therefore, governors who oppose mandates to help keep their populations safe have betrayed their duty. There is no Constitutional right to infect others with a deadly disease.

A mask and vaccine mandate to protect against Covid-19 should not be necessary. But there are people who, for the wrong reasons, are against mask wearing and vaccine getting. The same thing happened during the 1918 flu pandemic. But, then, cities stepped up with local ordinances and enforced them.

I don’t think there were mandates to get a polio vaccine. But parents who didn’t get their kids vaccinated were committing child abuse. The same with smallpox, tetanus, tuberculous and other safe and effective vaccines.



Perhaps the biggest of the commons is the climate itself because it affects the entire planet and all that live on it. Weather is short-term and local. Climate is long-term and global.

Humans, through the ever-expanding industrial revolution, along with population growth, are, in turn, affecting the climate by lacing the atmosphere with pollutants that cause global warming. As a result, this increasingly worsening of climate change is an existential threat to our food supply, to extended droughts, to larger fires, to increased flooding, to the availability of potable water, and to the disastrous consequences of rising ocean levels, among many other problems

There have been numerous warnings of runaway global warming for many decades. As this is written, there are record-setting fires and record high temperatures in the Northwest U.S., especially California and Oregon. There is record flooding in Germany and China and Nigeria and Turkey. Glaciers are melting, sea level is rising, oceans are getting warmer thereby fueling stronger hurricanes, and becoming more acidic, thereby destroying coral reefs where an estimated 25 percent of all marine life, including over 4,000 species of fish, are dependent.

But, as this is written, one of the more immediate problem involving global warming in the U.S. is Lake Mead. It’s a reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River located in the states of Nevada and Arizona. Because of an extreme drought, the reservoir capacity has dropped to its lowest since it was built in the 1930’s. So low in fact, that on August 16th, 2021, the Bureau of Reclamation announced the first-ever water shortage for the lower Colorado River basin, starting in 2022, which will prompt a reduction in water releases to Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. Some 25 Million people rely on Lake Mead’s water.

And Hoover Dam, producing about 2,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power – serving nearly 8 million Americans – has declined by 25% because of Lake Mead’s low levels. That affects several states, including California, Arizona, and Nevada, all of which get a substantial portion of their energy from Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric generators.



The Christians and Jews are bound by their faith to protect and take care of the earth, for the bible tells them so:

Genesis 1:26-27 (ESV) “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Numbers 35:33-34 (ESV) “You shall not pollute the land in which you live. . . You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.”

Exodus 22:5 (ESV) “If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over or lets his beast loose and it feeds in another man’s field, he shall make restitution from the best in his own field and in his own vineyard.

Isaiah 24:4-6 (ESV) “The earth mourns and withers; the world languishes and withers; the highest people of the earth languish. The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left.”

Isaiah 65:21-22 (ESV) “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

Jeremiah 2:7 (ESV) “And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things. But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.”

Psalm 24:1 (ESV) “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…”

Psalm 115:16 (ESV) “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.”

There are even some religious organizations established to help clean up the environment. The Evangelical Environmental Network declares that, “Our mission is to inspire, equip, educate, and mobilize evangelical Christians to love God and others by rediscovering and reclaiming the Biblical mandate to care for creation and working toward a stable climate and a healthy, pollution-free world.”

Some other religious organizations that have been created specifically to help fight pollution and clean up the environment. They include Eco-Justice Ministries, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, American Scientific Affiliation – A Fellowship of Christians in Science and Target Earth, among others.



Many indigenous peoples around the world have an individual spirit that is part of the greater soul of the universe. This is the principle of a religion called Animism. It’s a little like Pantheism in that it extends to all living and natural objects, as well as nonliving phenomena. This would include humans, plants, and animals, as well as elements and geographic features like rivers, mountains, or even thunderstorms. Native American culture is fiercely devoted to respecting and honoring the spirit of the land and everything with which it provides them.

 “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we borrow it from our Children.” —Ancient Indian Proverb

In the Haudenosaunee’s (Iroquois Confederacy) Great Law of Peace, decisions require “Planning Seven Generations Ahead.” Of course, planning for years ahead is anathema in a capitalist society where it usually extends only to the next quarterly dividend. In fact, as Yogi Berra once said, “Predicting is hard, especially about the future.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development have a small book available, Our Responsibility to the Seventh Generation, written in 1992 that discusses this concept in more detail. The authors offer this in explaining their philosophy of sustainability (pp 74-75):

“Sustainability for traditional Indigenous Peoples means ensuring the survival of the people, the land and the resources for seven generations. Because of their understanding of the need to respect the earth, Indigenous people have much to offer to the identification of sustainable development strategies. The survival of the planet has been compromised by practices based upon the belief that the earth has an unlimited capacity to absorb pollutants, that the land can be modified and manipulated to change or to increase the carrying capacity of the land. The unequal distribution of the resource, which has historical roots, has resulted in the depletion of resources in certain areas. It is these practices that have arisen from the attitude that is responsible for the damage to the planet’s support systems. The earth’s destruction is the result of societies having lost a sense of the earth’s sacredness.”

This, from the people we once called savages and heathens.



 Whether we acknowledge it or not, the sustainability of the earth’s resources is under a real threat. The cause is related to both the growth of the population with more than 200 years of industrialization, and resources being consumed faster than they can be replaced and/or replenished.

In fact, it could be said that the commons are collectively the very planet we call home. And, if we can’t stop destroying its resources, then the commons will become uninhabitable. Civilization could not thrive. And we and our fellow travelers could end up like the Reindeer on St. Matthew Island. Such destruction would the result of a self-made tragedy of the commons.

On August 7, 2021,The International Panel on Climate Change published its “Sixth Assessment Report.” It’s 3,949 pages long, was written by 234 authors, and cites some 14,000 scientific studies. It includes mountains of evidence detailing the scope of human-induced climate change and expectations of what the future might hold if greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb. It prompted U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to call the findings “a code red for humanity.”

According to the IPCC, the primary means of containing human-caused global warming is, and always has been to reduce heat-capturing airborne compounds like CO2, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. However, the necessary reduction levels needed to help mitigate global warming appear to be unrealistic.

The efforts to aggressively pursue strategies to help curb CO2 emissions and other pollutants have been stalled in this and a few other countries due to the estimated high cost of implementing needed programs. And although the general public is in favor of reducing carbon emissions, private businesses object due to the additional costs they will have to bear and the new regulations they would have to follow, thereby affecting the marketplace. And politicians object because of the increase in taxes needed to fund operations that reduce carbon emissions.



Garret Hardin’s “tragedy” suggests elements involving morality, responsibility, fairness, duty, cooperation, and mutual respect are needed to offset self-interest. Not for an egalitarian society, but for a sustainable one.

There are many ways suggested to help mitigate and adapt to climate change, both by individuals and government/industry. Some will try to implement those suggestions and some will not. For many, it’s a matter of inconvenience. For others, it’s a matter of money. Like anything else, how much progress can be made is a function of the effort put into it. The author’s personal opinion is that the genie is out of the bottle. Big polluters such as the oil and gas industry have a vested interest – Hardin’s self-interest – in delaying the changes needed to minimize climate change and help curb global warming.

British historian Arnold Toynbee said, “History shows that great nations rise, and great nations fall, but the autopsy of history is that all great nations commit suicide.” Because the tragedy of the commons affects all nations, suicide would be the Tragedy of Civilization.

And the instrument of our demise could be the tragedy of civilization.




This is a revised and expanded version of this same essay posted on on September 4, 2021.

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