Tragedy of the Commons Discussion Questions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

These discussion questions will help your high school students work through their thoughts about Garrett Hardin's 'The Tragedy of the Commons' and to apply these ideas to the modern world.

The Tragedy of the Commons

In 1833, the British economist William Forster Lloyd developed the concept that would be later known as the ''tragedy of the commons'' in reference to the ecological strain of communal grazing in Britain and Ireland. In 1968, American ecologist Garrett Hardin built on this idea in his article ''The Tragedy of the Commons'', published by Science. Hardin's theory was that unrestricted human breeding put too great a strain on global resources, which he explored through the metaphor of herdsmen grazing their livestock without restriction on the commons. Hardin's work was an influential piece in its time, both criticized and applauded for its Malthusian approach to population issues. These questions can help your students work through Hardin's article and wrestle with their own reactions to his ideas.

Questions about Hardin's Problem

  • In ''The Tragedy of the Commons'', what is the underlying problem that Hardin is examining? What is the population problem? How does he describe it? Why is human population growth problematic?
  • How does Hardin establish the relationship between population and resources? Why does he believe that human population counts will reach a point that outpaces resource production? Why can't improved agricultural and scientific methods prevent this?
  • What does Hardin mean when he says that there is no technical solution to the population problem? Why not? What other issues without technical solutions does he compare this to? What does this show us about his approach to the population problem?

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