Tragedy of the Commons Theory: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Tragedy of the Commons
  • 1:55 Examples
  • 3:19 Criticism of Hardin's Work
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

People all over the world need to share its common resources. However, this is not an easy thing to do as individuals may benefit more from serving their own self-interests, even if it is harmful to the overall community.

Tragedy of the Commons

I want to tell you a story. It takes place in a small pasture in the English country, where everyone is allowed to bring their cattle for grazing. The land doesn't belong to anyone in particular, so it's considered 'common' land, and you can bring as many of your cattle as you like. Over time, more and more farmers bring more and more of their cattle here to graze, since they can do so without having to take care of the land themselves. However, as more and more cattle graze in this small pasture, the land becomes less and less able to support the grazing. And, since cattle are grazing there all the time, the grass that is eaten doesn't get a chance to grow back, and, eventually, the pasture becomes bare and unusable. Now, this once bountiful resource that was available to everyone has been depleted and is usable by no one.

This scenario describes the tragedy of the commons. Published in 1968 by Garret Hardin, this theory states that individuals acting rationally and independently according to their own self-interest will deplete a shared resource, even if it is contrary to the best interest of the group. The individual farmers in our story were acting rationally and independently for themselves, because for them, it was beneficial to bring as many cattle as possible to the free grazing area. But because each individual acted in this way, the group suffered as a whole because the pasture became unusable as the shared resource was depleted.

Hardin's essay was actually based on this very story, which was published by an economist named William Forster Lloyd back in 1833. Hardin took this idea and ran with it. He felt that this was a problem faced in many social aspects because each individual gains a direct benefit from exploiting a common resource while only experiencing a minimal cost.


The tragedy of the commons is often brought up when people discuss environmental issues. For example, in fishing, if fishing provides an income, then each fisher would have his or her own best interest in mind and try to catch as many fish as possible even if all the other fishers are doing the same thing. As this behavior continues, the shared resource (the fish) is eventually depleted and the group as a whole (the global population) suffers.

Another example often cited is deforestation of the rain forests. While clearcutting trees for grazing pasture or development may directly benefit those who own and use the land, the cost of losing that rainforest land is more widely distributed. Pollution is similar. As an individual, it may be beneficial to drive yourself to work each day in a car that produces greenhouse gas emissions, but because the air is 'common' and shared by everyone, the overall public has to deal with that pollution each person contributes.

We can also apply this theory to non-environmental issues, such as vandalism. Vandalism serves to benefit a small number of individuals acting in their own self-interest. But because it tends to occur in public places, the larger general public has to bear the cost of seeing the vandalism, as well as cleaning it up.

Criticism of Hardin's Work

Hardin's essay is really quite famous. But what has since been taken and cited quite literally, was actually more of a metaphor for the overexploitation of resources. Hardin argues that despite tragic harm to common resources, individuals will continue to act in a self-serving manner and will not change their behavior to conserve resources. However, while Hardin doesn't provide evidential support for this claim, it is not uncommon for tribes, communities, and social circles to work together to support the group as a whole.

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