Attending to the Whole: Addressing the Tragedy of the Commons

By Madronna Holden

Garret Hardin’s much cited essay, “Tragedy of the Commons”, asserts that as humans maximize their individual self-interest, they inevitably destroy the natural commons that sustains them.  Hardin used the theoretical example of a pasture, assuming individual grazers would more strongly weight the benefits to themselves in grazing more sheep as against the benefits to the commons in holding back — thus overgrazing their land to destruction.

If Hardin had used real history instead of his postulated example,  he might have revised his assumption about the inevitable destruction of human resources shared in common. In traditionally shared commons, many cultures characteristically  monitor and self-regulate their activity to protect their subsistence base, as in the case of Mongolian horse pasture  and tribal fisheries in the indigenous Pacific Northwest. The latter are two examples pointed out by three distinguished professors in the fields of agribusiness, ecology and property law in their essay, “Tragedy of Ecosystem Services”.

Humans have not always been so stupid as to destroy the natural commons that sustains them —given that they both recognize it as their means of survival and have the power to regulate it as a community.  On the other hand, humans who don’t have knowledge of the results of their actions on the commons may act so as to undermine its survival– and their own. Jared Diamond illustrates such cases of ecological failure in his book, Collapse.

But given good information and the power to implement community choices accordingly, humans have designed subsistence arrangements sustainable for hundreds or thousands of years—as did the terrace-farmers in New Guinea with which Diamond had firsthand experience.

Today, the “tragedy of the commons” results from the intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition – in which one person’s gain becomes another’s loss.  What began the massive post-industrial erosion of the commons in Europe were the seventeenth century enclosure and land privatization laws, creating scarcity for small grazers and setting them in competition with one another.  At the same time that this policy filled the coffers of a few, it took away the power of the community to recognize their common interests and care for their lands together.

Enclosure laws, purported to “protect” local farmers, actually drove them off their land, as it did the James family, whose members came to the US after they lost their own land as a result.  It was a memory so potent as to be passed through several generations — and communicated to me when I interviewed James family members on Grand Mound Prairie, Washington, over two hundred years later.

The tragedy of the commons derives not from human nature –or a human presence on the land which is inevitably destructive– but from systems that work against doing the right thing, ecologically speaking–by obscuring knowledge of the importance of natural systems to our survival, for instance.

Or by creating an economic system that robs individuals of ecologically sound alternatives.  In response to the essay  on “partnering with the natural world”  on this site, Darcy Myers gives the example of a woman in Haiti who recognizes the destructive ecological consequences of her actions, but cannot survive by doing otherwise.

I once asked a group of dislocated workers (former loggers) in a class I taught how many would support clear cutting if they were given an economic alternative.  If they saw a different means with which to support their families, not a one would have chosen to clear-cut the land.

According to “The Tragedy of Ecosystem Services” degradation of natural processes priced at 33 trillion annually (in 1994 dollars) results from a failure to recognize and value them. Simply put, in a system which prioritizes making money, protecting the commons doesn’t.  Services created by natural processes but unvalued in the present market system include clean water, clean air, stable weather patterns, carbon sequestration in forests, and soil fertility.

In this article, C. L. Lant, J. B. Ruhl, and S.E. Kraft outline three ways humans have historically treated “ecosystem services”: private property law, government regulation, and common law.

They  concur with the ample documentation that indicates current US private property law is inevitably regressive in terms of care for the commons.

Government regulation is an important stop-gap to save resources that might otherwise be lost forever. But in its overriding of local decision-making, such regulation may lead not only to resistance on the part of local communities,  but to oppositions between interest groups that obscure recognition of the commons itself.

The third way of caring for “ecosystem services” is by taking up the precedent of common law, which has fallen by wayside in the emphasis on private property in the US legal system since the nineteenth century.  The Mongolian pasturage and northwest fishing situations are models of such common law—as are older European grazing traditions.

The authors of this article propose that the best way for such common law to be developed and enforced is by local communities within particular ecosystems.  There are interesting parallels between such common law and the legal “rights of nature”, since both set up legal rights for the protection of natural commons.

Though these authors have no illusions about the shift in cultural values and economic habits such common law might require, they insist we cannot continue to ignore the value of natural systems that sustain our lives —letting them be grabbed and used up by whomever can do so.

Many indigenous cultural traditions see the natural commons as priceless—and their protection as taking precedence over individual human rights to amass wealth, for instance.  These traditions  express holistic worldviews that respect the intrinsic value of all earthly life–extending their sense of family to all species in the circle of time that includes, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe framed it, ” a community of the living, the dead and the unborn.”

A vision of the whole that extends our awareness and responsibility arms us to reverse the tragedy of the commons.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

195 Responses

  1. I completely agree with this article. Throughout time people have been exploiting these resources without much thought as to what it going to do in the end. It is only now that these thoughts of what our exploitation is doing. I might have not been old enough to know but from what i do know teaching these type of thoughts in school is a relatively new idea, and a good one. Like the article states of of the setbacks that has caused this is misinformation on alternatives or the situation in general. I have taken a few classes which have really opened my eyes and ways of thinking when it comes to my own personal footprint on this earth. I feel that the education of this to as many people as we can will help stop this situation.

    It is a really sad thought that things like “clean water, clean air, stable weather patterns, carbon sequestration in forests, and soil fertility,” are not in the back of peoples minds before they perform their actions. Our world is extremely fragile and our western way of thinking is not right. Thinking only of getting rich, or personal gain, over whether or not our actions have extreme consequences to the commons.

    I hope people will start thinking in a different manor before its too late, and we don’t have things like clean water and air.

    • Indeed, Jason. Thanks for leading off the comments on this essay. I hope with you that we begin to wake up (and soon enough) in order to honor the natural systems that support us. I feel especially sad that new generations must inherit the results of the carelessness of former generations in this sense.
      Though devaluing or ignoring such systems has been going on for a few centuries in Western society, this trend takes place under particular economic set ups–and a worldview which we can expand/change.

    • I agree with you. Before we know it, the world around us is going to change so dramatically that I don’t think I’ll be able to recognize it if this continues. We are so money driven that we lose sight of the damage we are causing.
      I was just watching the Discovery channel the other day and they were showing some tree logging guys in Oregon cutting down trees.
      The way they were treating the area was just horrible. I don’t if any thing can be planted in that area after they destroyed it. But, we have to be educated some how of the damage that is going on.

      • Good point, Will. Education as to alternatives is very important. We need to be proactive in protecting both the environment and jobs. Economists at the UO projected the collapse of the timber industry (due to log shortages twenty years ago) twenty years before it happened. Much of this was due to sending processing jobs overseas AND clear-cutting rather than sustained yield cutting. There is a small plot in Lorane (about 20 acres) which has been managed in the latter way for decades with selective cutting. It earns its owner more than a short term yield–and the land is still gorgeous. The Menonminee tribe in Wisconsin has managed their tribal hardwood forest for sustained yield for nearly one hundred years now. All it takes is some thought and planning to care for the forest and obtain long term yields rather than ravaging it with a one time only quick money approach.

      • “Before we know it, the world around us is going to change so dramatically that I don’t think I’ll be able to recognize it if this continues.”

        I already feel like this has already happened sometimes. I initially moved to central Maryland a little over 20 years ago, and the differences between then and now, in the name of ‘development’, are staggering when I stop to think of them. Do we really need a shopping center every block or so (which looks just like the last one), or more giant houses (a fair number of which are sitting empty)? And then we wonder why the kids and young adults are getting into trouble (and more are suffering from issues such as asthma), when we’ve taken away all the ‘green spaces’ in which they/we used to burn off their/our energy. The only way to get to “The Outdoors” now is by a drive out of town, which obviously puts it out of reach of many. I agree, though, that we need to educate ourselves, and others we interact with, on the damage we are causing and what we can do about it.

        • Your experience indicates why green space within urban areas is essential, Crystal. From any research that we have, such green space is linked to community feeling (and dropping crime rates). When part of such green space is also available as a community garden, it has added benefits. Thanks for your comment.

        • I just wanted to add that I heard about a study that indicated that trees actually reduce crime!

    • I agree with your sentiment about increasing education about resource exploitation! The best way to improve our situation on this planet is beginning to teach kids at a young age about how their actions affect others in this way. We should be promoting recycling and conservation early on so that these activities become mindless habits. It is really no more effort to recycle something or use a little less water in your day. I feel like this could be effective, similar to the “litter but” campaign run by the government in the past.

      • Hi Allison, good point about changing our habits. Strange how that change can seem like a lot to do– before we make a new habit out of it. Education, as you point out, is one key to making this so.

  2. I absolutely agree with this article. Living in the Northwest where we are surround by trees and wildlife, I would have to admit that I take for granted where I live. Most mornings I wake up to crisp clean fresh air that I don’t think I would be able to get anywhere else unless I went north to Washington or some other place. I just can’t imagining myself waking up every morning in LA or NYC to that smog and disgusting air. We have a great back yard and I believe that we need to take care of our trees and commons. This is what defines Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.
    The loggers who said if they could have provided for their families in a different way and not cut down trees really hit home. Our generation is so money driven now, that we lose sight of the beauty that surrounds us. I feel that the government should step up the regulations and protect the nature that is within our country.

    • Thoughtful personal response, Will. I agree with you about the priority of our environmental “commons”– since we all need it to survive, we should all protect it together (after all, the government’s job is to protect our common interests). We do indeed need to value what we have (so as to care for it ) rather than taking it for granted. Thanks for your comment.

      • I am a fan of James Kunstler, probably better known as one of those “peak oil” guys. Actually though, most of what he has to say is on the subject of the demolition of our living space that has gone on for the past several decades. He does a podcast, and a recent one was on the tragedy of the commons. He points out that the devaluation of public space (parks, public squares, etc.) has paralleled the aggrandizement of private space. When people have huge houses and lots, it seems less important to them to invest in public space. This, as we are seeing, is to the great detriment of our social fabric.

        • Thanks for your follow up response here, Brenda. I think we are in trouble if we believe that any time we do something to care for one another as a community (including preserve public space) it is labeled as “socialist” or “big government” by particular special interests in order to squelch it. Time to reward those who create and preserve what our communities need to survive on. I said it another comment response here (perhaps yours?) that public space is correlated with decreased violence in urban communities.

    • “lose sight of the beauty that surrounds us”

      William, I agree with your value for beauty, but how do you educate those that don’t place the same value? Differing value systems are why we do have a “Tragedy of the Commons.”

      We may have different preferences for beauty, but clean air and water—that strikes a chord with everyone. We can only ignore foul water and foul air for so long and then we have to do something.

      Setting all of the climate data aside, foul air and water are of our own making. Right now we are the problem, not a meteor, not a volcano or cyclical weather systems, us. Unlike the meteor, volcano or the weather systems, we can do something about us. If that takes more government regulation to make that happen then I agree.

      • Thoughtful point, Barbara. Differing value systems (as in the difference between money profit and thriving communities?) are responsible for the tragedy of the commons? I would say yes and no: there are these social/economic conditions that create this as well–and sometimes values follow as well as motivate such things. I think we should change them both at once, since we don’t really know which came first.
        Indeed, we can and should do something about our own action–as you point out, that IS where we can most effect change. A very important point!

    • My other class this term is Urban Forestry, where we are getting all kinds of statistics backing up how much urban greenery contributes to our mental and physical health. For example, girls that are brought up in an environment with trees/greenspace have better self-image, do better in school and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. These things may seem on the surface to be unrelated, but as we are finding, things are more synergistic than people thought. Fortunately, I live in a city where public greenspaces are plentiful, but that’s only if you don’t venture into the suburbs. Everything out there is subdivisions, retail stores, or golf courses. Yes, their schools are new and you can get more square footage for your money, but I wouldn’t want to raise my kid in that environment.

      • I love the growing urban forests (and urban gardens), Brenda. Since the majority of us live in cities, I find this very hopeful indeed! Thanks for re-iterating and backing up my last response to a comment you made here!

  3. As stated above, today’s tragedy “results from the intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition – in which one person’s gain becomes another’s loss”. Another thing I would add to this is the seemingly Western misconception of invincibility with regards to environmental destruction. Jared Diamond addresses this succinctly in the beginning of Collapse by stating that “even the richest, technologically most advanced societies today face growing environmental and economic problems that should not be underestimated”. This is a word of caution to those who think they can battle Mother Nature with technology. Instead, the approach should indeed be more holistic; working with nature rather than against it. I really like Chinua Achebe’s statement that we should view our environmental surroundings as “a community of the living, the dead and the unborn”. With this approach we not only look to the past, but also reflect on how we can promote ecological preservation for our children and children’s children (and so forth). Diamond’s approach in Collapse is also beneficial; by reviewing the failed societies of the past (and present), Diamond provides “the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of distant peoples and past peoples”.

    • Great point about the “invincibility” misconception, Breannon. I see this as related to a “dominator paradox”– as those who try to survive by dominating others wind up undermining their own survival. In an interdependent system (which the natural world is) some may be able to convince themselves that domination is a good strategy. But in the long run, as you point out in the quotes from Diamond, it does not work. I think one of its greatest dangers is the way it blinds us to the real repercussions of our actions–we can’t make good decisions if we are ignorant to the results of our actions.
      I like your perspective in terms of learning from our past as we care for the future.
      Thanks for sharing this comment: you have obviously read and absorbed examples from Diamond’s book. As an aside, I like this book much better than his others, since it is the one in which he deals with the importance of human choice in different environmental contexts.

    • Breannon, I also think they nailed it when they talked about how competition instead of cooperation leads to environmental degradation. Someone’s gain becoming another’s loss also applies to many social problems, which has become evident to me during this time of record foreclosures, when some are becoming homeless, while those with money are easily buying up cheap housing. A holistic approach to healing for our earth and our society is desperately needed.

      • Great points, Michele and Breannon. The competitive approach is underlying much of the social and environmental ruin we must heal today-and a more cooperative approach is, as you say here Michele, sorely needed.

  4. I’m glad I read this article! Last year in my ecology classes two of my professors referred to the “tragedy of the commons” and I always wondered where that term came from. I had no idea that it was a well-known essay. We talked a lot about how it applied to the fishing industry today, and why this sort of attitude is leading to the total collapse of fisheries in our oceans. Most fishermen figure that if they don’t catch all the fish they possibly can now, someone else will catch the fish later anyway, and then the original fisherman will not benefit whatsoever. How frustrating that so many people can not look beyond their own individual lives in the here and now to consider their lives in twenty years and the lives of their children in fifty years.

    • Thanks for sharing this example of the tragedy of the commons, Allison. I think we can also see the social and economic context (not to mention, worldview) which motivates these fishermen to act in this way.

    • While I understand the frustration that you (as well as others who have posted) are expressing, you need to look deeper and realize that while it may look like it is the people fishing in your example doing the harm, it is actually society as a whole. These people have bills to pay, food to buy, and electricity to pay for. They are simply doing what society has deemed as necessary to survive-think and provide for yourself. While very tragic and said, it seems like for many there may not be an alternative.

      • You have made an excellent point underscoring the point made in this essay, Andrew– that it is particular economic conditions and political systems that create that constrain our rational behavior with respect to the environment– though there are some who are willing to risk everything to act ethically in spite of such constraints. (Again, check out the “indigenous peoples” article here.
        As a side point, I don’t think Allison has missed this point in her response.
        Thanks for your comment.

      • Hi Andrew – I agree with what you said about people having to provide for themselves, and it dovetails with what I mentioned in my response below. Our loss of community has led to people having to fend for themselves and I think this is the source of many of our societal problems. Thousands of years ago, human beings banded together into groups because cooperative living was most efficient. What we’re doing today is not only difficult and stressful but destructive to whatever social fabric we have left. We make choices based on what we must do to survive, not what we know is right, both for us and for the environment.

    • Allison, I would highly recommend also reading Garrett Hardin’s original article in Science magazine. Here’s a link I found to it:

      It was published in 1968 and definitely takes a Malthusian approach to the environment. Jared Diamonds, “Collapse”, is also a good read.

      • A major problem with Hardin’s original (which I intimate at here in my statement that humans are not destructive by nature) is that his assessment of population numbers leads to his sense that we need to regulate population growth lest those who are more conscious and have fewer children pass on fewer “moral” genes. to me, this resonates too much with the history of such abuses as forced sterilization of native people. I set out a different approach in the essay, “Indigenous peoples”. He is out on a limb here as in his ahistorical analysis of the care for the commons on the part of ALL human populations– since he made up his negative example and then drew conclusions from it when there was ample actual example to draw from.
        And perhaps you noticed this same link is also in this essay on the whole (never hurts to make it handy as you respond to your classmate)?

  5. Although I agree with the majority of what you wrote, I do disagree with your thought that by using the two examples where a culture has enacted self monitoring speaks for the entire population as a whole For example, prior to the Endangered Species Act (and all prior and post acts), the United States nearly depleated the country of hundreds of species of plants and animals. The people who consumed the plants and animals used them for medicinal purposes, food, clothing, trading, etc. They used them to enhance their personal gain. This seems like this is what Hardin was speaking about while writing The Tragedy of the Commons.

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. These are not the only two examples we may find (along with the New Guinea one) that indicate the ways in which humans behave toward the environment if their culture holds a different worldview than the one of competition. Check out the essay, “Indigenous peoples” here for an overview–as well as the “Gourmand’s Paradise”. You are absolutely right about the damage done post-US settlement: damage that destroyed thousands of years of sustainable living prior to that, in which humans (at least in the Pacific Northwest), increased the abundance, fertility, and biodiversity of their lands through their actions.
      We DO prefer the stereotype that all cultures behave toward the environment as Western industrial society has, but this is far from the truth, which we are learning as we are recovering more and more data on this point. The scary thing is that developing nations are emulating our worldview, which is one reason why it is so important to model leadership for changing this.

  6. “The tragedy of the commons derives not from human nature –or a human presence on the land which is inevitably destructive– but from systems that works against doing the right thing, ecologically speaking–by obscuring knowledge of the importance of natural systems to our survival, for instance.
    Or by creating an economic system that robs individuals of ecologically sound alternatives. ”

    Very well-said. If we believe that the degradation of our environment is inevitable with population growth, or in the name of progress, we can more easily justify our abuse of nature. This article makes it clear that we can and must do something about this, even though it requires a massive shift in how the world is run.

    • Hi Michele, thanks for your comment. Good point in summing up the perspective of this essay–and your own. I agree that this “massive shift in how the world is run” is overdue.

    • Along these lines of tragedy not deriving from human nature itself, I definitely agree that individuals are not necessarily intentionally harming the environment, rather it is ignorance that prevents them from “doing the right thing”. Thanks, Michelle, for pointing out that we should not accept environmental degradation as “inevitable”. Instead we should take responsibility and, as you state, “do something about this”.

      • Great point, Breannon. I also think there ARE those who intentionally harm the environment– or their workers– when they allow greed and/or arrogance to take over.
        There were early ()1950s) plastics’ manufacturers (see Bill Moyers’ Toxic Secrets, based on these business’ own internal documents) who clearly understood that exposure to toxics under conditions that might be remedied were causing their workers’ bones to dissolve-and their approach was to develop an international conspiracy (one of the times this word is really appropriate in the “conspiracy theory” heyday) to hide the medical data substantiated by the x-rays of their own doctors.

      • It seems to me that the belief that human nature is the problem, and that we will always cause destruction, is rooted in the Biblical worldview of “original sin”. I have always found this concept problematic, but haven’t thought about it in these terms. This goes right into the dualistic worldview that places humans apart from (and of course, above) nature. And it plays into the storyline that we will never be able to live in harmony with nature, so we had better invent technological fixes for our inevitable transgressions.

        • Pointedly, “original sin” is not a fundamental Christian doctrine– that is, not part of early Christianity, Brenda. It did parallel particular culture trends– a worldview that emphasizes punishment rather than positive support, which emerged with class differences in Western tradition. Theologian Matthew Fox traces two distinct trends in Christian theology: one is redemptionism (concentrating on uplifting us from the earthly sphere, as you note), and the second he terms “creationism”– which focuses on the idea of gratitude for our earthly existence and caring for the lives with which we share our world. Certain medieval Christian mystics (Fox discusses Hildegaard of Bingen, for instance), found the sacred in all earthly creation– just as did many indigenous traditions.

  7. “A vision of the whole that extends our awareness and responsibility arms us to reverse the tragedy of the commons.” This statement from the reading is what I would say, knowledge is power. Educating ourselves as well as our children is essential to changing our actions. I think of another class I am taking where someone stated that our ideas in the 70’s and 80’s (Prevent Forest Fires, Don’t Pollute, etc) were less than they are today. Implementations such as “Earth Day” and the “Green” Revolution has brought many people into the realization that we have to change what we do or otherwise, the Earth will not be able to sustain us. But as this article state, understanding that only action will change the current situation and not just lip service. I think of my own parents where recycling is not a priority along with anything else that has to do with environmental protection. They don’t see the value in it and trying to explain it to them is speaking to deaf ears. So beginning with myself and my children is where it begins and continues.

    • You are beginning where you are best able to effect a change– in our own choices and those of your children, Tina. And your parent’s actions aren’t set in stone (though it may seem like it). You may see a change come about there yet– though it may seem very slow in coming. Thanks for your comment.

    • You are so right; for change to begin, we need to educate our children. They are going to be left with this mess we created and the sooner they enact changes, the better off they will be. The next generation has the ability to change how they view the natural world and how they care for the valuable natural resources. If we are going to help them make better decisions, we need to educate them.

      • It is a tragedy to leave our children to clean up our “mess”, Jamie. We not only to educate our children to make better decisions, but to model those ourselves. Thanks for your comment.

      • Jamie, I agree with you. I am only still very young and not thinking about my children yet, but when I see things like this it makes me want to teach them about the more natural way of things. I don’t want them to take things for granted. It only will go downhill from here if we don’t educate our children and even ourselves.

    • I agree with you, Tina. Teaching our children to use resources wisely and be environmentally conscious is very important. Sure, it would be nice to convince others about the necessity of changing bad habits, but in all honesty, many adults are reluctant to change what works for them. When I was in the Air National Guard, we had a saying that things only changed when someone retired or died. There were only so many slots in the unit, and the old-timers would earn a place where they were comfortable and stay there until they were forced to leave. Retirement age in the Guard is 65! Some of these individuals would stay in one position for a decade or more, and woe to anyone who wanted to make changes to that section of the unit. Once they left, and someone new took over, significant change would finally occur. That’s the way it will be here in America. The younger generation will be more environmentally conscious than their parents, and they will teach their own children to treat the earth better.

      • A hopeful and important point about teaching the young, Roxanne (and you are in a personal position to do a good job of this). I wouldn’t give up on some of the older generation entirely– I have seen people change very late in life.

  8. America is a capitalist society and unfortunately we value status and wealth above ecosystem health. I believe few corporations give any thought to things like clean water and air. In this country, we act like we care about the environment and talk a lot about green initiatives, but our actions say something else. The government is always quick to step in and portray a nation that is committed to doing the right thing where the environment is concerned, but our continued obsession with fossil fuels, and degradation of our natural resources says something else. I think there is a better America in us, but only if we begin to value ecosystem health over status and wealth.

    • Unfortunately indeed, Jamie. I would like to see us allocate status and well being to those who care for our shared earth– rather, as is too often the case now, those who beat others out. I like your phrasing, “there is a better America in us” if we change our values. Thanks for your comment.

  9. Another interesting article, Dr. Holden. Your example of the dislocated loggers in the class you taught is probably how most individuals in occupational fields which are not so environmentally friendly feel, but given the economic condition in this country, it’s no surprise that the well-being of the environment is on the “back burner” as people will take what they can get.
    Recently, I took a seminar in LEED Green Building. I hope to eventually become a certified “Green Associate”. The point of this certification is to promote sustainability in the work place, from manufacturing goods to construction practices. I was amazed at how easy it was to decrease the environmental impact in the industrial world, and very puzzled as to why more industries aren’t taking a proactive approach towards sustainability. It came down to the following: it’s too time consuming. The bottom line is to manufacture, construct and sell as fast as possible and by any means necessary. This philosophy usually means: more pollution, more energy usage, less usage of sustainable material because of time constraints. Fortunately, there are some companies who have taken steps towards reducing their carbon footprint and maintaining sustainable efforts, all while being profitable; a business model of success in my opinion.

    • Thanks, Khurram. I do not think we can afford to put these issues on the “back burner”; we need to have the resolve as a community to create ways of making a living that are more environmentally friendly. Clear-cut logging is a bit of an ironic approach to making a living, since it is a one time only reward for decades; whereas sustainable logging can offer year after year of income. It is like taking 10,000 dollars today rather than say, 4,000 dollars annually for the rest of your life–not to mention, with benefits of clean air, clean water and aesthetics.
      You have a great goal in becoming a “green associate” in LEED building. It may be inconvenient to make a change, but the long term bottom line favors such changes. And sometimes I can’t explain the resistance to safe manufacturing at all. Take the US toy manufacturers who have two assembly lines in their factories: one which makes toys to the European Union’s safety standards so that they can be sold there, and the other that makes them to the lower US standards. They can hardly say that it is neither possible nor profitable to make these changes– or they wouldn’t have already done it.

  10. When I first began reading this article, I thought, “what has changed”? What have we lost as a civilization from the time of sharing resources until now? Were those old ones not as greedy then as we are now? Maybe it’s because we’ve become acculturated to a life of excess.

    But then I realized that we have simply lost our sense of community and become isolated within our homes and places of employment. Although the internet has contributed greatly to our society, it has also done a great deal to perpetuate this sense of isolation, and certainly, it has reduced our need for the socialization that a true community would provide. We no longer need to turn to our neighbors for help. We rely on no one but ourselves, and therefore, need not worry about our local resources. We don’t grow our own food and indeed, for many the perception is that it “comes from” the grocery store. As long as some entity, unknown to us, continues to take care of our needs, life will go on as we expect it to.

    • You have a central point, Barbara in our loss of community– with other humans as well as earth’s others. And our sense of place in the circle of life–as you indicate, in the perception that food comes from the grocery store. As long as we don’t see what we rely upon, we will not care for it–which does not bode well for our future.
      I am also concerned with the current trend that labels all care for the commons or for others in the human community “socialist” in order to reject it. I wonder about the future of our democracy when caring for others becomes labeled as a bad or dangerous thing.

    • Yes I agree that a sense of community is crucial for a successful shift towards sustainability in our society take place. It’s simply a feeling that the problems we face are overwhelming and that one person can not contribute to any meaningful change even if they change their own actions. It is only with a sense of community that I think people will feel like they can successfully institute the appropriate changes in our society.

  11. Good point concerning government intervention as an important stop gap but ineffective solution. Most of us have lost the ability to make a value added connection with nature so I am glad that there are National Parks to remind us of what once was. None of us living here and now would know that without them.

    As community members we have a responsibility to educate others to appreciate the value of the “free ecological service” our natural resources provide. This begins with our children and radiates out to our community. It isn’t a painful process, but it does require conscious effort. Conscious effort is what occurs when commons are shared successfully.

    • Barbara,
      I agree that government intervention is an important stop gap and that we also need to take personal responsibility within our communities to educate about the importance of our natural resources. There are so many factors in this education as we have to contend with attitudes not only of despair and heads in the sand but “it’s not my problem”. I have started to daily honor and recognize the mini- ecosystems in my immediate environments, like the small patch of creek or the life around a single tree. In the past I would look towards the state or national parks and larger eco-systems and miss the miracles happening in my own back yard. This keeps me filled with awe and hope.

      • What a wonderful result of honoring the ecosystems of home– being filled with “awe and hope”, Maureen. In my years of teaching, many students told me they felt empowered when they acting on their values. Thanks for providing an illustration of this for us.

    • Actually, the article did not say that this was an all or nothing proposition, Barbara. Government regulation is an essential stop gap– but if we don’t have community support in the long run, we will have hard going in caring for the commons we share. Educating one another (as well as supporting one another) is very important, as you indicate. Thanks for your comment.

  12. Nature is something that people don’t always appreciate, and need to appreciate more. I agree with this 100%. Living where we do, especially in Corvallis and surrounding areas we are surrounded by a beautiful arrangement of trees, wildlife, and also a very beautiful campus that not everyone gets to be blessed with. Before going to school here I took this beautiful nature for granted. Now, everyday I take a second to simply walk around and take everything in. Everyone else is so busy taking everything for granted- such as things that are completely driven by money or businesses that are ruining our beautiful mother nature, that they don’t realize what we have here. I think it is something that we need to be taught from an early beginning. Mother Nature is a beautiful thing. You need to appreciate the natural world more– its a beautiful, BEAUTIFUL thing and people do NOT realize that enough, they are to busy being wrapped up in other things. Thanks for this!

  13. I’ve read excerpts of Hardin’s essay, both for other classes and in the course of personal research, and it never really sat quite right with me. I could admit that his example did seem to hold up in some circumstances, but primarily only in those societies functioning under the industrialized or ‘Western’ mindset. The explanations I have previously come across for this were equally unsatisfying, as they often claim that destruction of the commons in industrialized societies is simply the expected result of human greed and our tendency to exploitation, which only seemed to support Hardin’s view of human nature, and also leaves the impression that all societies will eventually head down such a destructive path (which I just don’t believe). The “intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition” described as the actual causes of the “tragedy of the commons” makes far more sense to me, and tends to mesh with what I have seen and come across in research. These causes are also all socially-induced problems, which means they can be “socially-solved”, largely through improving awareness and increasing empowerment of individuals and communities. For example, empowering local communities in West Virginia, providing them with the means to determine their survival without depending on companies such as Massey, would allow them to develop new ways of life in which they could provide for their families without putting them and the surrounding environment in danger by tearing the tops off of mountains (and dumping the resulting “fill” into the rivers).

    The question is how do we fully develop the the commons, and then protect them? I read not too long ago about a legal fight (I can’t remember where, other than somewhere here on the east coast) over a community garden in one neighborhood. After the community turned this vacant lot into a thriving garden (and park, if I’m not mistaken), the value of the land increased and the city decided to sell the ‘property’ to developers–the community is (rightfully) fighting the sale, of course (still waiting for the outcome, so far as I know). Emphasis here in the U.S. tends to be on private property, and the laws generally appear to reflect that, so in the process of ‘retaking’ the commons, so to speak, we definitely need to always be aware of the need to simultaneously protect them (I heavily recommend studying any laws relevant to the project being undertaken early on, so as not to be taken by surprise).

    • Hi Crystal, thanks for your comment. Great perspective about the proactive responsibility we have to solve “socially-caused problems”– once we recognize them as such. To chalk up the tragedy of the commons to human nature is, as you point out, not only contrary to the facts of history and science–but takes us off the hook in terms of doing anything about our mistakes. (In fact, it allows us to claim that this is impossible). Great example in the West Virginia example– all the more pointed in the pressure to turn to things like mountain top mining as we use up oil reserves (a bad choice for several reasons).
      You may be thinking of the community garden in NYC destroyed by Mayor Giuliani (a reading in our “urban gardens” PHL 443 forum):
      that instance gives us much to discuss in what exactly a commons is–and who has a say in protecting it.
      As you indicate, we need to do some redefining of private and public property– especially when the commons is that to which we owe our lives–and which we need to continue them.
      Thanks for your comment.

  14. Very interesting article and response to Hardin’s essay “Tragedy of the Commons”. Regarding Hardin’s contention that humans inevitably destroy their natural environs as we “maximize our self interest”, I do not agree. There are too many examples among indigenous peoples worldwide of very wise and sophisticated monitoring systems of resources to believe this is an all-inclusive happenstance. I believe this is more a Judeo-Christian, patriarchal overlay.
    I am reading J. Stephen Lansing’s book Perfect Order :Recognizing complexity in Bali”. (2006) for Anth/550/ Ecological Anthropology course and this recent ethnography focuses on the people of Bali and their intricate and very sophisticated cultural and agricultural systems of rice harvesting and water systems management that has been documented in texts for over a thousand of years and have maintained equilibrium. The Balinese are favorite subjects of anthropologists and archeologists due to the fact that they do have recorded ancient traditions of autonomous republics and democracies even within the kingship and religious caste systems. Lansing and fellow anthropologists and social scientists have come to humbly acknowledge that western “scientific” interference and arrogance almost destroyed an ancient and well functioning system.

    • Thank you, Maureen. I had not heard of this resource- I appreciate your sharing it. As someone who has been doing anthropology since the early 1970s, I find it interesting that it is now considered good scholarship to do such work, whereas even a decade ago, it just wasn’t done. About time, I think. Thanks again for bringing this up!

  15. I think this essay makes a good point in that it’s not just “human nature” to squander the natural commons that have been given to all of us. It’s easy to think that way and act accordingly, trying to profit at the expense of others before someone else profits at the expense of you. The real truth, I believe, is that humans are creatures of habit, in that they act how they are used to acting, how they have been taught to act. We are social creatures who follow social laws maybe even more strictly than legal ones. If the worldview of our society shifted to where it was despicable to profit for oneself at the expense of the natural commons then this how people would most likely act. Unfortunately right now we live in a society where it is looked upon favorably to gain personal wealth and property. This simply has to change…

    • I agre with that sentiment. We need to change mass consciouness. In my opinion people have to choices to live in fear or to live in love consciousness. We need to think how our actions affect life and nature as a whole. We need to see the bigger picture. If our world is destroyed than wealth won’t matter anymore. We need to be aware of how we treat others. How we treat others affects how we treat ourselves.

    • Thoughtful point, Roman, about our being “creatures of habit” (so it is our habits rather than our “nature”) that cause so many destructive actions on our part. We are social creatures– and it is important to note that in some cultures profit at the expense of others is discouraged, so that there are few who wish to do it. I wonder if we could find a way to understand that in an interdependent system, our own profit is best achieved by supporting others.
      I agree that the worldview we currently have “simply has to change”.

  16. Last year I took a women studies class calledl, “Global Women in the Movies”. One article that I read linked the scarcity and proverty prevalent in third world countries, human trafficking, and the AIDS virus. These countries do not have adequate protection for women. If a woman becomes widowed because her husband dies, she lacks the resources and opportunties to adequately provide for her children. Government policies do in some of these countries do not allow women to own property or earn adequate income to support their themselves and their children. Furthermore, women are subjected to men who are allowed to beat, rape, and kill young women. There are no rights to protect them. Young female chldren are forced into marriage by older men who force them into sexual activity and are getting pregnant at very young ages. Young girls in these countries are subjected to human trafficking in their own country and abroad in order to survive. This activity leaves these young girls at risk for the AIDS virus. Also, the men in these relationships are sleeping with many young women, which also spreads the AIDS virus. The young girls in these third world countries have very few options because the laws in these countries are not protecting them. The men who are subjecting theirselves and these young women lack the knowledge and education to fully understand the magnitude of their actions. In my opinion this is a primary example of the tragedy of the commons. This example provides a link between poverty, government policies by the elite who fail to protect those less than priviledged, and the spread of a deadly virus that is seriously putting our young girls at risk.

    • Thanks for your comment, Elizabeth– and the point that the “commons” has a social as well as an environmental component– or rather, that they are linked. Half the Sky (you might want to check it out, since this is an obvious concern of yours) goes into such issues in detail. One thing is important, I think, that we do not label this as the problem of other countries rather than our own. Poverty in inner city Washington, D. C. rivals that in Haiti–and there is trafficking in child porn (children) in the US as well. Moreover, globalization of multi-nationals means that US corporations are responsible for the poverty that comes with globalization in some of these arenas. I am raising these issues because it is putting our own house in order is something we should be responsible for–and our own behavior is always something we can change– and no one is going to follow our leadership if we try to change others without facing and changing what is wrong here. Thanks again for your comment.

  17. It’s my understanding that eminent domain was designed to ensure that property could be seized for the common good, regardless of the private ownership of that land. In a perfect world, that would give our government the power to designate areas within our country that are to be protected as ecologically important. Unfortunately, it seems like state and local governments are becoming more and more greedy, expanding the definition of eminent domain to include economic development (shopping malls, large chain stores, etc.). I remember the last time I visited Bend and saw some undeveloped land being taken over by the county, simply because some corporation wanted to build a super store on that site. Acres of land that was home to an entire high desert ecosystem was basically stolen for a small fraction of its worth, and all of the plants and animals that lived there are gone. What’s even more sad is that the corporation that took over the land will probably abandon that incredibly large store when a “better economic opportunity” arises elsewhere, thus making the loss of wildlife even more pointless than it is already. When will we, as a country, start demanding a better use of our resources? Are we doomed to make the Pixar movie “Wall-E” real?

    • Thanks for your comment, Roxanne. I don’t know how eminent domain fits in here, since it is often used for things like condemning older residences for the sake of building roads or developments. I don’t know how one would apply it land or water…although in an interesting case, the City of Eugene was willing to threaten this to stop a dangerous development instead, there were sighs of relief that this did not need to be done in the end– as there was no precedent for this kind of use of this. It would be great if it were used more readily to protect our commons, I think–instead of as in the case you point out to foster development in Bend. It is all too often true that corporations given this courtesy by governments do not make a return–or are not held to providing things like minimum wage jobs and staying in the community for a certain length of time. And how do we prevent such things? We must all be involved, informed and proactive citizens– even when the odds look like they are stacked against us and the going seems slow in inducing the changes we need to make our democracy a participatory one and our environment sustainable.

  18. In one of my previous classes, we had a highly spirited discussion of Hardin’s paper and the assumptions contained therein. In that discussion, another student made the point that one of these assumptions is how wealth is valued. She gave the example of a village in Ghana where the “wealthiest” woman wasn’t the one with electricity or other material goods, but the one who had started a community-run grain mill. In this culture, having too much material wealth while others had none was seen as shameful. This definitely fits the “interdependence” value, vs. the “competition” value that is held by much of western society. To me, this point seems to boil down the essence of whether we can live harmoniously with nature or not. From this value (interdependence) stems a moral system that would take into account the rest of the world in individual decision-making (ok this will be a stretch for westerners).

    You point out that “humans who don’t have knowledge of the results of their actions on the commons may act so as to undermine its survival– and their own.” This is true, but as you also imply, knowledge is not enough. In Hardin’s own words, “The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.” We all witness this every day, as Americans continue to drive SUVs, buy feedlot meat, and buy products made in third-world countries – even though we know, on some level, that we are causing harm. We continue to make the choices we make, because the harm is “far away” and happens to some unidentified “others”.

    The tools we have available to influence the behavior of others, as I see it, are economic and moral. You can either shame people into behaving certain ways (recycling is a good example) or you can induce them through their pocketbook. In the above example of the Ghana village, public shame would be an effective tool to prevent one individual from over-accumulating wealth. That works to some extent in our society, but we lack the sense of interdependence to make it really effective. Moral codes are very slow to change, and people still do what they want simply “because they can”. You say that “…by creating an economic system that robs individuals of ecologically sound alternatives” we prevent people from doing the right thing. Clearly, the best tool available for tackling environmental challenges in modern society is economic. We must put a price tag on things we don’t want, and encourage behavior that is sustainable. Sorry this was kind of long, but there is a lot here!

    • Thanks for an excellent analysis, Brenda. There is indeed “a lot there” in what you had to say.
      The point about culturally defined value is a very important one. In communities (or among individuals even in our society) where “interdependence” is an important value- or partnership in the case of tribal fishing communities in the Pacific Northwest–, “maximizing self-interest” has a whole different meaning and result than in an economic system built on beating out the next person (or using up resources so that you can get something before the next person gets it). There are communities with such strong cooperative ethics, it reads the lie in assuming competition will always and automatically ravage an environmental commons. I am thinking of early boarding school games among the Hopi, there they could teach the Hopi to play a great game of basketball, but couldn’t teach them to keep score. Richard Lee’s “Eating Christmas” is a pointed humorous essay on the ways in which a community (the San people) use shame to take down the “big man” ego of the anthropologist who gave the community a cow– and got gossip coming back to him about how puny and unsatisfactory the cow was. This stymied him until he ferreted out the fact that one who thought because he could give folks something they could not get for themselves he should be praised was in need of severe socialization in a community that ran on cooperation.
      Your point about shame is well taken– but my sense is that is a secondary strategy many indigenous communities resort to when an individual does not respond to positive teaching (as in the ways elders modeled the love and care for grandchildren and then applied this family ethic to the rest of the world). Socialization was accomplished through interpersonal intimacy using joy, humor, and a sense of personal challenge. In this context, there was tremendous individual flexibility of action. When reciprocity is an ethic, care for the individuality of others leads to responsibility as well. (I detailed this dynamic in my article on the traditional Chehalis sense of self–listed on the “about” page here.)
      In a culture in which we have an expansive sense of private property and a limited sense of self (we tell children what they should be feeling or seeing, what is “real”), it may seem like punishment (shame or withdrawal of economic benefit) is the most effective way to enforce responsible behavior with respect to the commons. In many indigenous societies, by contrast, there is a strong sense of common property– but an expansive sense of the private self– expressed in one’s dreams, songs, dances, art, visions, and personal experiences. Pointedly, in the early contact period, some indigenous communities chalked up the destructive potential of the pioneers to their lack of belonging to a nurturant society they saw as home.
      It seems to me that people are motivated by many positive things. In the essay here on the “mice in the sink”, there are many, many comments illustrating the joy and wonder of reaching out to the lives of earth’s others with intimacy and exploration, for instance.
      Information is important and highly manipulated in our culture, not only by the media, but by our political arenas– see the new report on the site of the Union of Concerned Scientists (inked here) about the manipulation of scientific information by politics.
      I think the issue of other values is an important one, Brenda, so I have spent some time on it. I also think you have summed up two other essential points echoed in public discussion around protecting the commons in the “economic and moral” sphere. I appreciate your very thoughtful summary discussion of this important issue. Thank for your comment!

  19. I believe that what’s missing in the “The Tragedy of the Commons” is a positive movement towards development of a management system to begin with. It initially seemed that our concern for the environment tends to end up assigning priority to conservation over private accumulation. But, I don’t believe that it’s because there ARE common properties that they suffer tragedies, on the contrary, because private property seems to have superseded the commons.” I have to believe that we are ultimately arguing against the capitalist methodology which Hardin’s misrepresentation of facts has assisted in this adopted view by the global economy. It’s quite obvious that those organizations with the ability to control the measures that directly reflect profit and loss margins will continue to do so in their best interests. I think it is here were Hardin has been “championed”, it’s his one sided persuasive movement toward privatization that got the “Tragedy of the Commons” recognized and obviously not for ecological sustainability. I’m under the impression that the only way to stop these global giants from continuing there consumption of our environment is to re-educated following generation so they will recognize our errors. And, I can only hope we can afford the time to do so?

    • Thanks for your comment, Ryan. Of course, a key dialogue around this topic is whether the commons suffers its degradation as common or private property. Historically, the case seems to support the latter, as you indicate.
      I think one hopeful point with those “continuing to control profit” is the ways in which some progressive businesses (as those on CSWire) are redefining profit: after all, if you haven’t a natural world producing air, water, and food, accumulating money isn’t going to profit you much.

  20. We as a society do not look at our environment as a common place. We see ourselves as superior to the land we live on, and t he species who inhabit it. To many indigenous people, these common lands are priceless. They would know, because after all they preserved their environment entirely for thousands of years, without losing resources and destroying land. We can learn from this philosophy, and not view land as only a profit. I want to see our society change and start thinkning with an interdependent view. Good article

    • It is indeed time to start looking at our environment as the common ground upon which we share our lives, Kyle. One thing the history of certain indigenous peoples show us is that human care for the land is possible– we have the capacity to do this important thing right.

  21. These traditions express holistic worldviews that respect the intrinsic value of all earthly life–extending their sense of family to all species in the circle of time that includes, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe framed it, ” a community of the living, the dead and the unborn.”

    In this essay, it seems that with all the knowledge in the world, it is time to listen to earth’s wisdom or those who impart it well. Humanity can know so much, but understand so little.

    • Your comment brings to mind a reflection on the idea of knowledge itself, Tina. “All the (technical?) knowledge in the world is not going to help us if we don’t know how to use it wisely–and ethically. My own sense is that this is something the system of nature– of lives grown together and working together for millions of years– might teach us.

  22. If we don’t pull our resources together from what we have all learned and what we have all used, seen, or heard, where would we be in the future? If you think about it, do we really want technology shaping our world as we know it today? Remember the abacus? I’m even too young for that. We now rely on technology to survive. How can this be changed? Is it all because we are money driven and will do anything for it even if it requires throwing out the abacus?

    • What do you think, Jenn? Ulrich Bech has done an analysis of modern society, wherein he points out the irony of letting whatever technology emerges just do so without choosing it: the irony is this, though thus technological developments are supposed to make us more free, in fact, we are at the mercy of the “fate” of technologies we have not chosen. His suggestion is not that we do away with technology (impossible in any event), but that we start choosing which technologies we use more wisely.

    • Jennifer, I agree that technology is shaping the world we live in, but that is not always a “bad” thing. Some innovations in technology have allowed us to make life more sustainable, by enabling us recycle and re-use some of our resources. Along with that, technology is allowing us to have a discussion about our environment right now. People around the world can learn about our environment, and share their ideas and concerns about it, through the various forms of technology.

      Advancements in technology are inevitable, but our instructor brings up a good point, that we all have the power to choose which technologies we use.

      • We also define what we consider “advancements”, so that we aren’t faced with the “fate” of just accepting whatever technology someone comes up with.
        Good points: if we hope to make our way out of environmental dilemmas, we need to exercise our choices.

    • Sometimes I wonder if we shape technology, or technology shapes us. I have read a bit of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity theory and find it quite interesting. He has a few theories on what could happen with our technology use in the future, some are good and some are frightening. An interesting point that is discussed in his works is that we have created so much technology in such a short time span that we have not had the time to philosophize on the repercussions of its use or where it may take us.

      • According to Ulrich Bech’s Risk Society, a central (and dangerous) irony of the modern age is the assumption that technology gives us more choice– but when we are subject to whatever technology anyone comes up with, we actual have fewer choices as technology becomes a kind of “fate”. Knowledge– of ourselves, of the consequences of technology use– and of our own choices is the key here.
        Thanks for sharing the point about singularity theory. I think we have to be careful in predicting the social future with a theory that focuses on the physical description of the cosmos. I also think that anything that encourages us to do some thinking about the future we are creating for ourselves does something right.

  23. Short term gain with a repercussion of long term loss. This is a concept that seems to be overlooked when money or livelihoods are involved. Something that we are far from correcting as a country let alone as a planet. Companies, cities, and even countries as a whole sometimes get the idea that their contribution the problem is minimal compared with others, which in turn helps the “others” to think that their not going to loose profit when everyone is doing it. A circle that feeds off itself until something huge stops it. As a country we have made significant progress in how we treat the environment and many companies do what they can to limit pollution and create a green business policy. Since most other countries in don’t share this concept most consumers buy products made from overseas where the price of environment isn’t considered. I believe that we can expect this to continue as long as people are allowed to gain from the loss of the natural commons.

    • Good point about the negative feedback loop of “everyone is doing it” (grabbing their own gain before someone else gets it), Philip. We need other models– like those the folks at CSRwire are offering (see our links page here under “vision and action). The point to remember is, contrary to this licensing denial attitude, what we do as individuals and as businesses (not to mention as a country) does and can make a difference for good as well. We just need to get down to it. And I think you are right that there will always be tragic results of allowing a few to “gain from the loss of the natural commons.”

    • You make a great point about the ‘price of the environment isn’t considered’ in countries which make our stuff. Even though our laws and practices may be improving in our country, I think it is very important to influence the rest of the world by buying products from greener companies. If each person took an extra minute and did a quick google search about a product and where/how it’s made, we could begin to change some of the enviromental issues in other countries instead of just buying the cheapest stuff without regard for the environmental degredation in far off lands which will impact us all!

      • There is some info of this type under “consumer info” in the links section here, Brad. Voting with our dollars is important. It is also important to note that many of the offenders in third world countries are corporations who have abandoned business in countries with more environmental and social regulations. As “good jobs first” (another link here) research indicates, the higher the standards of environmental regulation, the better the economic well being of any given place. Thus the cheap consumer goods produced under appalling conditions in other countries lowers their standard of living and choices–and ultimately, in an interdependent world harms us. For one thing, losing jobs to these other countries exaggerates economic crises here.

      • Thanks for your comment Brad. Good point on how a little bit of research for consumers can go a long way to contribute to green businesses. The main problem now is to lower the gap in prices between green and non-green products without raising the overall cost considerably. This would mean meeting somewhere between stronger tariffs for non-green imports and tax incentives for US green companies. Another idea would be a free or inexpensive marketing strategy for green companies.

        • Something else we might do is do away with “perverse subsidies” created by legislators in concert with lobbyists that not only make commercial products transported over long distances often cheaper than organically and sustainably raised goods, but reward businesses for bad business practices.

  24. The loss of the commons seems to come hand in hand with industrialized society. I am curious to know if there are any modern day industrialized societies that were able to keep their commons in-tact. It does not seem like much thought goes into natural systems when we decide to build new communities. Our continuous stretch outwards in suburban crawl probably doesn’t make this situation any better. Like the native people, we should use a system that considers what we are losing when we build instead of just seeing dollar signs. It is amazing how we can take things like fresh water and clean for granted.

    There was an architect speaking on NPR the other day who had some interesting things to say about city planning. The city of San Francisco is going to be planting more trees and greenery so migrating birds can come here. What a great vision it is to have another species included in our cityscape, and I hope to see it in my lifetime. It will take some hard work and innovation, but I think we can have some type of an nontraditional commons even in an urban area

    • Hi Tiffany, I think the problem is not necessarily new communities per se but the transitory status we often have on the land– which sees earth other as objects for human use only– use em up and leave. And since industrialized societies as we know them today are also capitalist, there is the problem of the competitive money-first model indicated in this essay.

      Taking fresh water for granted is something we cannot do for long– we will soon need to wake up to the shortage of clean water globally (and the fact that we are consistently drawing down our water tables in many places in the US). Many places in the globe have already suffered water riots: our version is the conflict between agricultural and fishing uses– which indicates there is not enough to go around if we continue to use water in our present fashion.
      It is amazing, as you point out, how careless we can be with the sources of our own survival.
      The greening of cityscapes is an important movement of the future, given how many of us are currently living in cities. I like William McDonough’s idea that rooftops should be landscaped so that birds recognize them as familial.
      Thanks for a thoughtful comment, Tiffany.

      • Oh I see, what you mean about using up the resources and leaving. I hope I didn’t miss the point too much! The concept of taking what we want, moving on, and not even trying to repair any of the damage done is completely self-centered and it is the “norm” for doing business for a large number of industries.

        • You didn’t miss the point about caring for the commons, Tiffany. My sense is that there are too many who interpret Hardin according to the modern industrial worldview–and don’t look into differing cultural and historical contexts.
          The use ’em up and leave ’em behind mentality is a destructive one wherever it is expressed.

  25. The lack of knowledge and realization by the perpetrators is the key for me here. I think that the essay points out and attempts to explain that people who use and ultimately degrade the commons often don’t have the knowledge or don’t care that their decisions will ultimately impact everyone including themselves. Our society does not “self-regulate” or “monitor” our actions, but rather relies on the government or written regulations to do this for us. This way of thinking only allows corporations and other groups to degrade codes, influence decisions, and ultimately impact the commons for us all. The money grabbing and instant gratification mentality of our society also needs to be balanced somewhere if the commons can be saved. I think a great example of this is the building of access roads into wilderness and forested areas. These roads are being supported by the logging companies and other self-interests because they say they are necessary and can be used by all, but in reality are the first steps to begin harvesting new trees and natural areas. I think that regulations can only go so far as the essay points out because a “failure to recognize the value to all” will result in the destruction of the commons for each individual as well. Again, knowledge seems to be the key, and the realization that even though we may only visit a place once a year on summer vacation doesn’t mean that the lake’s protection is not really up to us the rest of the time!

    • You raise some important issues to consider here, Brad. Knowledge of the land that is more than our seasonal visits might imply is one issue. An intimacy with the land based on holistic thinking is another: avoiding erosion of landscapes one step at a time as you indicate. Self-regulation is certainly essential: so is, I think a larger (and interdependent) recognition of the “self”, so that we realize that harm to the land is also harm to ourselves. This is the value and perspective held by those who actually successfully protected the commons by monitoring their actions.

  26. I am happy to read an alternative theory to the “tragedy of the commons”. It is refreshing to read an essay that focuses on our abitlity as humans to make good decisions, rather than an essay that assumes that humans will always make the wrong decision. It is even better to see this positive theory can be backed up by historical examples. I found this essay to be very enlightening – thank you!

  27. A notable difference in modern societies and indigenous populations is in the governing “systems” which support them as noted by the case of the Haitian woman who was conscious her actions were not environmentally sustainable, yet she felt so unsupported and disempowered by the “system” she was not able to see an alternative and felt forced to continue unsustainable practices at the cost her integrity and the environment. Indigenous societies revere all life and foster a support system that encourages a holistic way of life for its entire community to live in communion with the natural world. I see a fundamental problem for most modern societies is individual actions are from conditioned thoughts and behavior patterns that play out in story lines of “survival of the fittest,” to take without consequence or accountability is considered a normal way of life. In addition, modern societies tend to look outside for a quick fix, usually from the government, which ironically is the often the root source of the problem as seen in what happened with the “James” family.

    The invation to see beyond the wants, needs and desire of the self is crucial for people to come together and meet the needs of all living things.

    • Points to consider, Angel. We need to change the “storylines” that go with the dominating worldview in order to give ourselves more options for knowledge and relationship to the natural world–and recast the “self” not as an individual ego-against the world, but as and interdependent self that extends to life around it.

  28. I enjoyed this essay very much because it raises an interesting, and often left unsaid, point about how the destruction of our shared environment is not necessarily due to the corrupt sense of our nature, “Today, the “tragedy of the commons” results from the intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition-in which one person’s gain becomes another’s loss.” This is an important point because although it may be easiest to pass blame on to some type of intrinsic character flaw, the conflict has roots of a socially constructed origin, and a failure to recognize this, is a failure to begin addressing the true problem. I think that what this essay describes is even evident in the United States when we see how many farms produce monocultures like Corn and Soy. A disproportional amount of crops in this country are Corn and Soy, and the reasoning behind this can be described through a history of government based subsidies, and also struggling farmers simply trying to survive. Many farms that used to represent biodiversity in their growing, particularly farms in the middle of our country, have had to resort to growing the only thing that the Government gives them credit for. In this instance that crop remains to be corn, and for this reason, and survival of their livelihood, it leaves United States farmers little choice. This example reflects the same type of argument that the essay presents in its description of Haiti, and the people living there. In conclusion, I think that it is a good thing to realize that the degradation or our planet is not 100% accountable to “humans just being naturally evil and bad” but rather from societal constructs, and basic survival.

    • The problem with an “intrinsic character flaw”, as you indicate Shana, is that all one can do in response is shrug one’s shoulders– rather than make the changes we need.
      We need a community that encourages (and gives monetary rewards) to those who care for the land, including fostering its biodiversity. See Wes Anderson’s Land Institute for an alternative to corn/soy farming in the Midwest.
      Important points to consider!

    • And the fact that it is a social problem instead of an flaw in the humans, making them intrinsically bad, while encouraging in that it isn’t a foregone conclusion that we will act in a way detrimental to the commons, is still frustrating in that it seems like it is still a very hard thing to fight. Changing the way society is set up so that we act in a way beneficial to the commons seems frustratingly hard when so many people know that we are facing serious environmental problems, yet still don’t do anything about it and continue to buy gallon sized Round-Up (for example – I was at Home Depot today and they had it on sale, I hate that stuff.)

      • It isn’t indeed a foregone conclusion, Sarah, that humans will act to care for the commons, as we see in many human actions in modern industrial society.
        I am stunned every time I see gallons of Round Up on sale as well–not to mention, all those tv ads for it. One would think there would be a more graceful (and realistic) way to hail spring in our society.

  29. In considering the Tragedy of Ecosystem Services, I see that the issue of quantification vs. qualification of the production of things we cannot survive without (air and water) is only an issue as long as leaving natural resources alone to serve the greater good must answer to an economy set on resource extraction. The common good and the ecosystem services that serve the common good don’t need to be quantified or qualified as long as human life is being lived in relative balance with the rest of life on Earth. A lot of resources are going into quantifying carbon and creating budgets of sequestration and loss. We wouldn’t need this if we weren’t quite concerned that we had caused an imbalance that we are going to continue to face consequences for.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Amanda.
      It seems to me (as in Dean Bavington’s history of the cod fishery collapse in Nova Scotia) that quantification of resources is linked with the capitalist system (which counts everything and represents it as dollars). Bavington makes the point that viewing the cod as pounds of catch detracted from the ability to see what was really going on with it– something Nova Scotia fishermen understood. But their stories were discounted by scientists because they were not quantifiable–and also did not jive with science’s supposed management power.
      So how can we make good choices about the whole without quantification? Religious people in the Pacific Northwest determined what and where to burn as well as the limits of salmon catch in a given run. I assume they had some perception of the largeness of a given run–or the timing of the seasons. So perhaps we need a different kind of quantification– or of determining, literally, what counts–and what is discounted (like the cod fishermen’s stories).
      You present a point to ponder on trying to set things back in balance (as in carbon in the atmosphere). Perhaps the problem is not so much counting any aspect the world per se (and certainly not, in assessing it) — but in the way we represent its complexity and our responsibility.

  30. when seen from this article is an explanation of how we became corrupted person: uneducated person you pursued money and people that have a lot of money use it as leverage to do damage by controlling people who don’t have money but need it for their families. It is terrible to think but it’s true that’s the more money somebody has the more somebody wants and the more they want the less likely they are to pursue that money in a way that helps people more in a way that destroys environments and destroys families.

    • It is a sad idea that the more money someone has the more money (and power?) they want. Seems like that would show us just how dissatisfying accumulating money is. The problem is, as you point out, that those with money and power have done some serious damage to our environment and society. These are not the things that we as a society should be rewarding anyone for–with money or anything else.

  31. Economics are complex and fascinating. As other comments have pointed out, the essay describes how the most powerful and wealthy can change the laws of a community in ways that concentrate their wealth further, and which drive the poor to unsustainable practices.

    I’m struck by how the powerful get the powerless to do their work for them. When the powerful control most of the grazing land and force the poor onto a small commons, the poor will compete violently with each other for the scarce resources remaining to them, making it easier for the rich to sweep in and wipe out the few who remain. And when the commons is exhausted, the monopoly of the rich is made complete, further amplifying their power.

    Civil institutions like anti-trust laws and public lands should be used to check the power of the rich, demanding a fair price be paid for access and that no one person or company be allowed to control a market. Unfortunately, our politics has been too corrupted for civil laws to have much power at all.

    • I think you sad analysis is all too true, Anders. The recent Supreme Court decision certifying that corporations have the rights of human persons (to spend as much money as they wish on lobbying and political campaigns) is a case in point. We can’t truly say we have a democracy (which is a kind of social commons, yes?) when those with money have more of a “vote” than others.
      One thing we can do is choose what we buy–and work together to change abuses: we can stop being those powerless who, as you noted above, are manipulated by the powerful– but only if we work together to do this.

  32. All resources on earth began as common goods. All were laid out for fair use by humans and animals alike, but as populations of both grew so did competition. This competition has driven people to be greedier in their takes in order to secure their goods. The tragedy is that all people draw from the same sources and sooner or later it’s going to run short. Some will gain more while others lack. I liked what was mentioned about the loggers, that if given another profitable alternative, they would rather not clear-cut. So, most of our actions are understandably profit-driven, we need a means to provide for ourselves and families. If only there were a way to regulate usage of common goods without making people feel like their rights to it weren’t being cut-off. I think a lot of people would take offense and not see that overall value better source regulation and rationing would have for more people.

    • Be careful of historical analysis without careful support and data here, Morgan. Populations did not just “grow” out of cooperative societies (see “Indigenous peoples”). In fact, colonialism was a major creator of population growth. On the other hand, feelings of scarcity surely incite competition. I think we need to re-define what we mean by “profit” here, doing away with “perverse subsides” that provide economic rewards for things few of us want (like dirty air or toxic waste– or waste in general).
      And it is also true that lack of care of an environment that is “new” and not yet home can create a free for all of waste, as in the ways that early Northwestern landscapes were logged and cleared and salmon were fished.
      Some things to think about, thanks for bringing them up.

  33. I think social competition and our current economic system are two of the major problems contributing to the way land is managed these days.

    In a previous course I learned about the Maasai people of Africa, who spent generations using shared land to graze their cows. It hadn’t even occured to them that the land could be “owned” by an individual. So you can imagine that when increased urbanization resulted in fences going up which kept their cattle out of grazing areas, they were more than a little upset and frustrated.

    I’d be curious to find out whether there has been any research into whether local farming could sustain communities? Since moving to Oregon, I have significantly reduced the amount of non-local food I eat, which is easy based on where we are and the culture in this state. We’re being constantly reminded that we need big farming and GMOs in order to “feed the world” but it is my understanding that hunger is actually increasing.

    • Competition (an attitude of “get mine first”) and an economic system which rewards using up the commons are certainly two essential problems with honoring the commons that we all depend on for survival, Anna.
      A recent study indicated that a large proportion of food needed for the current human population could be raised locally in the Willamette Valley– that would mean converting the grass seed enterprises to growing food for people. And as far as I know, that doesn’t count things like urban gardening.

  34. I know that the tragedy of the commons is due more to the way the society in which we live rather than a built in inadequacy in our genetics (as evidenced by the lack of the tragedy of the commons in most, if not all, of the various indigenous societies) but it seems almost as hopeless. There are strides being made in the right direction but it sometimes seems like so little in the face of all that is wrong. Factory farming, lazy homeowners pouring pesticides and herbicides on their lawns (which then runs into the rivers and streams), corporate pollution, communities set up in such a way that people are dependent on cars to get around (increasing the pollution in our air). There are so many things we have yet to solve and we cannot depend on an unlimited amount of time to do it in. Look at one of our largest commons: the ocean. Over fishing, oil spills, islands of floating garbage and both point source and non-point source pollution. The orcas in the Puget Sound, for example, have so many chemicals built up in their bodies through bio-accumulation (especially the males, who cannot reduce their load by passing, unwittingly, to their offspring) that when they die their bodies have to be treated as hazardous waste.

    • There is indeed “so much wrong”– and so much to change if we are to care for our tender world and leave it vital for those who follow us, Sarah. My sense is this: the more that is wrong, the more imperative we do not become victims of apathy and hopelessness, but act to do what needs to be done.
      There is much grief in facing these realities–and I can only hope, much imperative for change.
      Thanks for your caring response.

  35. I definitely agree with this article. Most humans act in their own self-interest, and could care less about the impact their decisions have on others. I am guilty of this myself, even at the smallest level. I will drive to places I could probably walk to or ride a bike. This hurts the environment, which in turn hurts everyone else in the world. My actions can also place greater harm on some people than others, depending on their industry or profession. I can definitely relate with the grazers, who are more concerned about making more profit than destroying the commons. Although it took some deep thinking as to ways in which I do act in my self-interest, I do think I could make some sacrifices that would benefit the commons.

    • Thanks for modeling your thoughtful self-reflection here, Troy. I think we can all use some of this–and, as you indicate, it takes some discipline and sometimes– hard choices.
      Part of our motivation in doing this might well be the understanding of the way in which the vitality of the commons effects us all.

    • I think I’m on the same page as you Troy. I don’t see anything inherently wrong with acting in one’s self-interest in dealing with communal space and limited resources. What is required, however, is a social contract (abstractly of course) that recognizes that certain limits should be in place to promote the greater good (which of course benefits one’s self interest). I wouldn’t consider it making a “sacrifice” to do something that would benefit the commons, its just a tradeoff of immediate gratification for future use.

  36. I see your example of English enclosure laws changing to sustainability of traditional agricultural practices as a parallel to our government’s practice of allotments dealing with Native Americans in the early 1900’s. The government transplanted a form of land management that promoted individual self interest and reliance onto a population that traditionally gravitated towards communal ownership and responsibility. Of course, the result was devastating for the native populations and communities. I agree that the best way to manage communal systems would probably be locally, as a local community would probably have the greatest insight into the needs of their shared space. However, the prevailing interconnectedness of nature would also prove to require more and more umbrella groups to intercede as local communities actions and policies affected each other.

    • Great connection, Dale. You may well know that the US government actually urged “selfishness” on native peoples– that was Senator Henry Dawes’ argument in favor of passing his Allotment Act– based on the idea that native peoples would never become “advanced” if they remained so unselfish. Speaks with more than a bit of irony with respect to the worldview he favored.
      The issue of local knowledge is very interestingly laid out in Dean Bavington’s study of Nova Scotia cod fishery– the scientific approach devastated it– which it needed have had it heeded local knowledge.

  37. Mass media is attempting to bring the message of ecology to the people; however, Hollywood’s reason is profit. In a society built on capitalism, the idea of socialism is anathema. The idea is hard to sell to a society whose paranoia of the unknown and fear of insecurity override rationality. The commons are a shared interest, but the greed of people places a determined value on them instead of finding them priceless. The Earth of the future may be a desert in a solar system of similar planets, or it may become the launching pad for a reinvigorated species that take the message of partnership into the galaxy. If and when we find other earth-like planets, will we rape them of their resources like we’re doing now? Or will have matured enough to foster care and unconditional compassion on the other life we find out there?

    • I am a bit confused by your response, Dwayne: socialism is not the same as commons or common interest– this is a bit of a “loaded” word in our current political climate that therefore needs definition as it is used. If we define common interest as socialism and then reject it, with what can we create or hold a society together?
      Can you find any way to shift this perspective from what we are doing so wrong we might move our negative acts into the outer arm of the galaxy to indicate what we might do right in concrete ways in our lives–how might we model this, for instance, in the historical example in this essay?

      • My apologies. I am using the word socialism to mean of collective interest or value. In many ways, the commons are a collective interest because they provide valuable resources for humans. I did not mean socialism in the political sense. Perhaps a better term would be “eco-consensus” or “collective sustainability.”

        The commons are instead collectively destroyed because of the self-interest created through capitalism. There is little or no social contract with nature that sustains the value gained from the commons. Profit is the dominant force in a capitalist society.

        We can model a new form of sociology in the way we spend our money. We can contribute to sustainable farming by purchasing products from local farmers, or supporting companies that buy local. We can educate ourselves in how to put back what we take from the commons. We can establish laws to give home farming a monetary value. We can create a collective trust for future generations by altering our need to accumulate and acquire material possessions. If this shift in consciousness can occur, perhaps our species will be able to take it with them to other planets.

        Please let me know if that is more clear. It is not my intent to offend anyone.

        • There is certainly no apology necessary, Dwayne. I think socialism is a perfectly good word–and particular countries that are our allies in Europe are happy to use it. What I am concerned about is more general: misunderstanding coming about through the use of undefined terms. I think it is essential for us to have conversations about our responsibility for the natural and social commons and appreciate your partaking in this.
          I would not say that self-interest per se destroys the commons– since historically, those who felt the most direct sense of self-interest in the commons– who had power over this as a community– were the ones who protected it. In this sense, I think we also need to understand self-interest: it may range from competitive self-aggrandizement to an understanding that our well-being is interdependent on the well being of others.
          As you indicate, it is the lack of connection with the natural world that seems associated with our lack of care for it. I very much like your idea of creating a “collective trust” for future generations– of all natural lives, I would hope.

  38. I think that the tragedy of the commons is a result of human nature. Human nature is what developed the systems that led society to its current state. The social competition in which many people now participate, is influenced by selfishness- ex. doing whatever it takes to make a profit or to get a head of competition. I understand the perspective of the woman in Haiti having to do what is necessary to survive and how in the current state there is no other alternative, but her reality is the result of someone else’s ignorance as a direct reflection of their human nature.

    I am not sure if I am not grasping the concept correctly?

    • Hi Michael, your statement about doing whatever one wants to get ahead of the competition brings up the context of capitalist economies which encourage this kind of attitude and behavior– and little concern for the commons. However, historical comparison indicates this is not part of human nature-– since there is much care for the commons in different social and economic circumstances. What history seems to illustrate here is that humans do not automatically destroy the commons out of selfishness, but very particular social structures and circumstances encourage this. This is the finding of the historical research survey I cited here which outlines the economic situations in which the care for the commons is more or less liable to be enacted.
      You have a well taken point about the woman in Haiti–and her choices being limited by others. But I would not attribute this to their “nature”, since only some humans express this kind of ignorance and selfishness–and some social and economic situations encourage it more than others.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I hope this offers some clarification for you.

    • Companies cannot expand or create more production for themselves without using more resources and creating more waste. The U.S is in such a critical situation with its economy that it is hard to strictly enforce such environmental restrictions. People need jobs and they need money and unfortunately destroying the earth is a big part of achieving that.

      • You might want to take a look at folks like William McDonough who address the philosophy of design in such a way that waste becomes food (as it is in nature).
        I don;t think we can afford to limit our thinking to our current system rather than looking at creative alternatives– after we take a serious critical look at what we have and what we need to have for a sustainable future. Perhaps one of the most pervasive human traits is our adaptability. Time to bring out that flexibility now rather than trapping ourselves in a corner because that is the (wrong-headed) route we started out on.

  39. This article has given me an agreeable attitude towards how naive a lot of people can be when using earth’s natural resources. Because of our ignorant and selfish attitude in taking whatever we want from this world, we are now suffering the consequences. In order to stop the consequences, we need to redeem ourselves by giving up our greedy ways and start treating this world with care. One of the ways that we can start treating the world with care is by adopting some of the worldviews used by indigenous people. One of these worldviews, as stated in the article, is holism. We should think that we are connected to nature, and it is by our actions that affect nature, which would in turn affect ourselves. So, if we possessed holism in our views, then we would know better to take care of the environment.

    • Great point, Maileen. This concurs with modern ecological knowledge that the world is interconencted: what we do not only comes back to us in such a world, but in this context, our actions have more far reaching consequences than we otherwise sense.

  40. It is too bad that this recognition of the tragedy has come after much destruction has already occurred. I think it is quite difficult to place market values on ecosystem services when there are such differing worldviews. There is debate even in the definition of ecosystem services, as I have seen in forum discussions related to the subject, still seen to be leaning toward mostly anthropocentric definitions and terminology. A change in this perspective may be necessary before any real results can occur.

    • I would take your point about placing market values on ecosystem services even further, Julie, and say that there are some things– like those that sustain live– that are priceless. And these increases the tragedy of losing such things and only mourning them, as you indicate, after the fact. As a true citizen of the natural world, we would have to learn other terms than the anthropocentric ones you critique.

      • I agree. I find there is a lack of connection between nature philosophy and ecosystem services or Natural Resources subjects in school and the terminology used is from being exposed to both of these courses at the same time. I believe no monetary value can be placed on these services, but I am faced with a need to discuss these ideas with others who very obviously have different values. The terminology they understand and can relate to seems to be different than mine. I am not sure how to bring them closer together without them discounting my ideas completely, although, I see great need to do so.

        • Hi Julia, can you clarify what you agree on here and what you mean by “nature philosophy” as it applies to the idea of the commons in historical perspective? How do terminology differences apply to pricing ecosystem services?
          In your conversations with those with different views, can you find underlying value similarities by indicating what you each mean by the terms you use– or are underlying value differences the problem?

  41. I think the biggest obstacle will be convincing those at the top (both politically and financially) that sustainability is necessary. Ultimately they are the ones that control what information is more widely distributed and have the power and resources available to further study what can and needs to be done in order to protect exi
    sting resources.

    • Convincing folks that sustainability is necessary seems to me a moot point: since if we don’t live sustainably as a species, we will simply die out– convincing many of “those on top” to do anything that seems other than their short term interest is a serious problem in a capitalist society that rewards greed in the ways ours currently does.
      It seems that we must disempower those who abuse their authority (which will not be easy, admittedly), but I am reminded of the work of an environmental law lawyer who went after Trojan Nuclear Plant again and again and again until it was finally shut down by voter initiative. He stated he was not intimated by those who abused their power, since they had such a weak base that in the end they were easier to topple.
      Of course, we must start with the sense of our own power and community to make a run at such an important change.

      • Why should the U.S restrict production for a cleaner Earth when developing countries are going to continue their paths regardless? It would take such a devastating change of philosophy and probably a reduced population to make the strides that are necessary to conserve the earth. Even if new regulations succeed only a low percentage of the earths polluters will change so will it really make that big of a difference?

        • I think that you have in a sense answered your own question if you feel that a “greener earth” is any sort of priority: the more degradation there is, the more any positive change anywhere counts.
          And you are expressing precisely the philosophy that gets the commons used up– if we don’t get ours, someone else will beat us to it. I think there is a wiser and more practical way of looking both at the world and at human relations.
          Most of those polluting third world countries are following in our technological footsteps. Time to present a different and better model to them (and to our children).

        • I can see where you’re coming from, Andrew — I’m often disheartened by the thought of how drastically American values have to change in order for our society to even approach the point of sustainability. But to echo a point that Dr. Holden made in an earlier post, the United States is a world power that has a great influence on other nations. This is one of the positive aspects of globalization.

          Miller and Spoolman’s “Environmental Science” text mentions that “developed countries, with only 18% of the world’s population, use about 88% of the world’s resources and produce about 75% of the world’s pollution and waste” (13). So regulations that only affect a relatively small population can have a huge impact!

          Besides, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

          Miller, G.T. and S.E. Spoolman. Environmental Science 13th ed. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole. Print.

        • The disproportion of resource use on the part of First World countries is a key point to consider in any analysis of our global choices. Thanks for bringing this up, Jason. And it does mean that if we don’t model something different for the rest of the world, our species is in trouble, since the planet simply cannot sustain a human population in which everyone uses resources at the rate that we do.

  42. I have read Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” many times throughout my education in environmental science and every time I encounter it I must confess at the man’s seeming stupidity in his own writing. To me it seems like a paper written on conjecture with no thought in really looking at past histories or other societies that seem to contradict his entire written account. That being said, what I think is important to remember, of course, is the time in which the article was written and the current happenings that were prevalent in its discussion.

    During the 1960’s there was a huge Environmental movement that began and it was, in my understanding, the first time that the American Public took an interest in our current standing with nature. Rachel Carson’s famous story “Silent Spring” had come out in the early 60’s and people were dealing with understanding the health hazards of playing with nuclear bombs from WWII. Throughout the world much was happening in the 60’s, what with reconfigurations of borders and boundaries and people’s rights. Yet in 2012 Hardin’s piece is still taught in schools and argued over and written about, to what avail?

    What I believe is important to take from Hardin’s piece is the fact that he wrote from a worldview that, I would argue, is the majorities worldview – at least the majority of the developed countries. Since Hardin’s initial publication of his piece, we have been termed the “me” generation. The generation that has become less about the good of the community and only about what is beneficial to “I”. It is the displacement of the selves and the removal of people from land and land ownership to unlivable conditions within a big city that propels the need for the “I” to make more money, get higher up the ladder, sacrifice anyone so “I” can rid myself of the current conditions and live in leisure (whatever that means to the person). We have put our individual selves into the “paradox of domination”, as you note in the article “Partnering with the Natural World”. The idea that the individuals are in competition with each other and over the years we lose sight of what we want, so that no longer can we view anyone or anything has having a spirit or to be living. This is where we are now, today, battling everyone and everything and seeing nothing with beauty, rights, wonder or having a quality of human-ness.

    If the current worldview prevails then I would even argue that maybe Garret Hardin was right, maybe he saw the worst in humans and knew the capacity of their destruction if guided into this thought. But what history shows us is that the current worldview is not what has always been so and humans have great potential for altering or changing our way of thought. We have been given the emotion of compassion and there is much written about our ability to love. In reality our current systems are arbitrary, we made them and, I believe, we can change them. If, as you note, “the erosion of the commons began with the 17th centuries enclosure and land privatization laws from Britain”, then in the year 2012 we should be able to realize that these laws and systems do not work for us anymore. Furthermore, that we have the ability to change them and alter them to fit our current societies needs. I believe there is the possibility to change we just need the right voices and ideas to come forth and create the change – but change we must, even to prove Garret Hardin wrong.

    michelle pierce – 400 – 443

    • Great perspective here, Michelle, from looking at the history context of this piece– to critiquing its own lack of historical (and cross-cultural) perspective. Time to learn from such history and revise our bad choices.
      It is sad that this is still used in high schools with almost a biblical certainty– it is useful to look at the ways in which it reflects our modern industrial worldview.
      Thanks again for your insightful comment.

  43. PHL 443-401
    Humans have become accustoming to “overgrazing their lands” since the beginning of specific technologies. Are species reached a point where it could not improve without the industrial technologies of the seventeenth century. Whether it is human greed or its ambition to be successful, these technologies are destroying the earths environment. The main reason it is becoming more a problem as the years go on is because some countries have yet to develop as the nations who hold power in the world. Destroying the earth has become the standard for all humans to attempt so they can be considered as intelligent. Over population in developed countries is a primary reason for pollution in the air, soil, and water. Preventing pollution is always the best route but humans choose to clean up after the fact. Humans have reached a point where they are too far involved to turn back pollution and over use of resources. The only option now is to greatly improve current technologies that cause these problems.

    • Perhaps we need to reconsider our idea of what it means to be “successful” as many non-industrialized (and even some industrialized) peoples have done?
      I see hope in cleaning up before the fact in the precautionary principle.

      • Maybe we should but population density cannot increase without these technologies. If we didn’t have them then maybe were not talking on computers or maybe were not alive at all. The places that are successful in non-industrialized places have smaller populations therefore lesser needs. And if the population is large than they have big problems with poverty and hunger.

        • I’m sorry, Andrew–but maybe we should what? I am not clear what you are replying to.
          Check out our quote of the week which indicates what the state of Kerala in India has done for over 30 million people. It seems to me that the more we are drawing from our natural systems, the more imperative it is to do this care.

    • Destroying the earth has become the norm due to our wants and needs in life. Our priorities consist of stuff and more stuff. We have to have the latest tv, vehicle, toys, or clothes without thinking about where or how it was made. When health and well-being becomes the norm then views of pollution will change.

    • Hello Andrew:
      I agree and feel its probably a little of both greed and ambition that drives mankind to move forward, which usually results in the regression of nature. Over population does play a significant role as well, with the worlds population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and our energy demands expected to increase by 5x’s. I must respectfully disagree that simply improving our current technologies is not a viable long term option. Our current and future demands will more than likely be met by some technologies that are available today (not fossil fuel or nuclear) and some that may not even be known yet. The point I’m trying to make is we will not take on a massive project like changing our infrastructure unless we our certain that what we currently possess is sustainable/abundant, 100% clean, economical and will not likely be surpassed by something else in a few years down the road (mankind will not likely make another infrastructure change for 100’s of years). Personally myself (as far as energy is concerned) I feel bacteria, hydrogen as a fuel and in a fuel cell, plus a combination of solar, wind and hydro-generators will be play a role in our future energy demands. All these technologies at the present have substantial con’s but I am confident we will overcome them. Here is a video on youtube that shows there are technologies being developed now, that were once considered science fiction.

      Ryan McGarrity
      Fisheries and Wildlife Major

      • And perhaps our worldview drives us to see ambition in a very different way that someone like Wangari Maathai– whose ambition consisted of helping the poor women of Africa and planting trees throughout the continent at the same time.
        Another type of “ambition” is to work on more of the creative designs that you give an example of here– rather than to beat out someone else in the economic sphere.

  44. I’ve read a couple rebuttals to Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons”, including George Monbiot’s “The Tragedy of Enclosure”. Monbiot mentions that Hardin erred with his definition of “commons.” True commons are managed, and he refers to Hardin’s commons as free-for-alls: “Hardin’s thesis works only where there is no ownership. The oceans, for example, possessed by no one and poorly regulated … and the costs of their exploitation are bourne by the world as a whole.”

    This made me think of how I use the utilities and resources available to me. They are managed by my community, but from my perspective they seem unlimited. I could run the water all day long without worry of running out. If I leave the lights and televisions on day and night, power will continue to flow. All my waste is quietly carted away every week whether it’s a little or a lot. Sure, I have to pay for these utilities, but it gets taken out of my bank account automatically and I always seem to have enough money to happily get by. It feels like a free-for-all.

    Of course, I try to be more mindful than I’m suggesting, but I do wonder if this impression of infinite resources shapes my habits to some degree. I’m fairly certain it does. If I were actually charged an amount equivalent to the value of the services provided by the ecosystem, I would likely make some different decisions. Better yet, if I were in closer personal contact with the natural systems affected by my resource use (and the resource use of the 20,000 people in my community), I would likely make some lifestyle changes. But here I sit, happily insulated from this type of first-hand knowledge. This lifestyle is all I know. Will it be the only lifestyle my children know? If that thought makes me uneasy, then why shouldn’t I start doing more to honor the natural world today? Maybe my kids will follow that example and pass it down the line.

    • Very thoughtful assessment, Jason. I think you are right that when we do not see the limits of our resources, nor our direct effect on the environment, we tend to blissfully use them carelessly.
      Assessing true costs would be an excellent way to treat this, and paying on a true conservation scales would be another (currently, the largest users tend to pay the least for unit). Adjusting “base fees” which are charged to all users no matter what their usage is another progressive response.
      Thanks for sharing the ideas in Monboit’s article. In spite of all the substantial rebuttals of Hardin’s work, it is a sign of the persistence of our worldview that it is so often used in high school classes without serious critique. I do like the “Tragedy of Ecosystem Services”, since it outlines differing forms of regulation and ownership of the commons in historical perspective and indicates which have most effective. In the latter, he includes the system of Northwest salmon fishing, with all its cultural regulation.

  45. The limits to our natural resources are sometimes only seen by those who don’t have it (clean water, clean air, stable weather patterns, carbon sequestration in forests, and soil fertility). In the United States we have a bountiful amount of resources. Living in Oregon I appreciate the good amenities I have compared to other states with bad water or unstable weather patterns (tornados). I take for granted that these resources where I live are always going to be there because looking back the resources have always been here. Last winter our water pipes froze for 2 weeks giving us no water in the house and we had to haul water in from town. We really learned to conserve water and use the minimal amount needed. We now have put in a new water line this last summer to our house and I am so thankful to not have to worry about frozen pipes this winter. I have a new appreciation for water because of the experience. Scarcity has a way of changing views of unlimited resources.

    • Important idea that the fact that we have such an abundance of clean water, stable weather patterns (although perhaps not at the moment!), forests and soil fertility means that we should appreciate these and care more for them rather than destroying them through careless action.
      It would certainly be best for all the humans concerned if we did not need such rude wake up calls to understand how to treasure what we have!

  46. Environmental awareness has been around for generations but only in the last ten to twenty years has mankind really taken “substantial” steps in protecting our natural resources, after all they’re not called “unlimited resources.” The commons shows examples of just how destructive humans can be on the environment, just our mere presence alter’s an ecosystem alone (its unavoidable).

    One key point that stood out to me is how this article describes that our true crimes are “obscuring knowledge of the importance of natural systems to our survival.” This knowledge should be readily available to everyone (not just the conservationists that looks for it), especially to our children in their classrooms (every middle school and high school should have at least one mandatory natural resource class in their curriculum). Several examples of individuals are given where their jobs (or their survival) rely on technology or practices that are ecologically irresponsible but they would not be able to survive otherwise. One of these examples was a former group of loggers that were asked if they were given a choice; would they clear-cut a forest to provide for their families or if an ecological, economical alternative were present would they choose the alternative… not one chose to clear-cut. Most of us do not lack the will to change, we lack the infrastructure. Which is complex, vast and will prove costly to change but essential if we want to evolve (and survive) as a species and eventually change our current mindsets.

    One personal example I can add to this reflection is of a company obscuring knowledge, not of a “natural system” but of a technological system that would benefit our survival. Several years ago, two engineers developed a new battery that would revolutionize the automobile industry for electric vehicles. This battery was capable of powering a car for roughly 200 miles, could reach an 80% of its charge in 20 minutes, was economical (and ecologically responsible) to produce and had a greater life expectancy then even our current lithium ion batteries. Directly after knowledge of these batteries were made available to the general public, chevron exxon mobile bought the majority controlling rights to this technology. Now it sits on a shelf somewhere never to be used by man (and forgotten by most of us). By any standards, this is wrong (and just one reason I refuse to buy gas for my car at exxon). We should not live in a world where we give so much power to these companies that they can dictate how the rest of mankind (globally) operates and decide for us how we will live our lives. This information was made apparent to me from a documentary I witnessed called “Who Killed the Electric Car.” It’s roughly two hours long and was free on youtube (in sections) last time I checked if anyone would care to watch it (it covers many interesting topics).

    Ryan McGarrity
    Fisheries and Wildlife Major

    • This film is a good model of a number of instances of obscuring better alternatives that competed with someone else’s profit. We certainly need a system in which, as you indicate, knowledge of the results of particular technological choices are available to all– as well as one in which we do not allow monetary incentive to flow to those with such questionable ethics.
      Thanks for your comment, Ryan.

  47. I never considered the destructive side of US property laws. Piecing up the land, making tax money off it and sort of putting individuals in competition with each other. At the same time I know that the ability of individuals to own property has allowed many to rise out of poverty and exploitative living conditions. I wonder where the balance is? Community land ownership and management? The essay is thought provoking and helps one to see and think of the current system from a different angle. Maybe there is a better way.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful points to ponder about balance here, Summer. I think we can look at bit at the historical chart/comparison in the essay on ecosystem services and see what has worked in the past.
      There are certain parts of our commons– air, water, climate- necessary to all life that no one should be able to denigrate even if parts of them flow through the land they “own”.
      We have much to think about–and much to work out in this respect.

  48. It is hard for me to continually see Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” represented by just that small example of the herdsman who looks at a benefit to himself that outweighs the consequences that the “whole” commons would have to bear. Hardin’s whole essay relentlessly repeated over and over Hardin’s fear of over population and the lack of resources to supply the ever growing populations. He used different scenarios to try to make his point and the tragedy of the commons was a scenario that he took from a pamphlet written more than a hundred years prior to his publishing. So many people have taken that little excerpt and in my opinion missed the point of his essay.

    In George Monbiot’s “The Tragedy of the Enclosure” he points out that in many commons there were regulations and that it was not a free for all. He points out that by taking away the rights of the commoners, who regulated the commons, there have been disastrous consequences. In the article “Partnering with the Natural World” it was mentioned that power decision makers don’t immediately feel consequences. It could be fair to say that they do not have a real sense of the land or the people for which they impose rules on.

    There were a couple of things that stood out to me from the other articles “Partnering with the Natural World” and “Indigenous Peoples”. One is that the attitude of partnering with the natural world requires that you be aware of nature and your actions upon it and that there is management of human behavior. The other is that indigenous people stabilized their populations by using child spacing methods. I feel this is the heart of what Hardin really wanted people to take from his essay; a respect for the resources and to manage human behavior to slow populations.

    • Hi Kim, thanks for your comment and the points you bring out. It is true indeed that Hardin finds human population as a major detriment to the environment. My problem with his conclusion (besides its historical slips– you can’t really base a conclusion on history if you have that history wrong) is his sense that people are the problem period and that they will ALWAYS do things to the detriment of the environment if they do not have private property. Hardin’s essay argues for a view of human nature that is capitalistic and competitive.
      There are better ways to speak to the population issue than by distorting history or locking human nature into this meager vision based on an idea that ONLY private property will protect the commons (which is precisely the opposite of what has and continues to happen).

    • Kim,
      You make several great points. First that those in power are not those who really feel the effects of policy they are making. Westernized, larger, developed countries whose governments are making policy about how the commons are allowed to be used aren’t experiencing the lack of basic needs that those in the undeveoped or developing countries are, they are also not experiencing the eratic weather that many of these small, tropical countries are, nor the rising water levels that are actually displacing some populations who have been completely self-sustainable until now.
      Secondly, the fact that indigenous people managed population size and needs through child spacing methods. I completely agree that one of the best ways for us to respect our resources is to control population growth. If larger countries like the US were to slow the number of births per year, imagine how much less of a footprint our country would make.

      • Actually, it seems that on a global level, it is more the countries other than the developed ones that are often making more regulations about protecting the commons (I am thinking of Ecuador, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and the state of Kerala in India, for instance), whereas we have not even allowed the EPA to put its first ever cap on national carbon emissions with Congress being up in arms over this.
        Given that we annually consume a quarter of the world’s resources, we are in a key position to protect the commons just by changing our own ways.
        Controlling population growth can be a problematic process when imposed on some populations by others. The best way to control population, as many of the developed nations forget, is to empower third world women with economic security.
        Thank you for your comment.

  49. “I once asked a group of dislocated workers (former loggers) in a class I taught how many would support clear cutting if they were given an economic alternative. If they saw a different means with which to support their families, not a one would have chosen to clear-cut the land.” I think that this speaks a profound truth about the tragedy that befalls many marginalized people. It is not so much that the commons will collapse under the pressure of you and your neighbor, but without alternatives to making a living, many times people are left with little choice as how to live. The exterior forces that put people in positions to create ecological tragedies generally come from economic forces that give insufficient value to natural resource services. Because I feel that many of the services are undervalued by those that are making the laws, they allow these resources to be grabbed and used up indiscriminently. Fixing this problem will require an effort by our leadership to begin to employ new methods of thinking and planning. The point that was brought up in the essay that states, “common laws should be developed and enforced by local communities within particular ecosystems,” is important. It was shown that self-governace can and is effective in protecting the commons, but I believe that those that are in charge of making these decisions need ample understanding and knowledge of these services and why they need protection. I am also slightly pessamistic in my view of how we will protect our commons. I feel that we are just beginning to gather in the correct leadership that has a deeper understanding of the importance of our resources. it seems though, depending on the the election cycle, that could change. Until there’s a profound shift in all of our leadership, understanding, and culture we will continue to see tragedies. If our leadership can take charge and lead us in the right direction I will feel better at how we can accomplish this change of thought.

    • Thoughtful analysis of the economic context that leads to certain actions with respect to the environment Travis. And I wonder which comes first here: the devaluing of ecosystem services or the economic system that allows corporate greed to ravage those services. That is, under a different economic system, we might be more likely to truly value the natural services that sustain our lives.
      The effort in changing this will such challenging corporate power– including, I daresay, the Supreme Court decision that gives corporates the rights of persons in unlimited campaign contributions, for valuing ecosystem services at anything comparable to their true benefits will hamper their being grabbed up for free…
      I concur that the coming elections are very important. We can see this in the Congressional response to the EPA’s first ever national carbon limit– days after this important protection for the commons and response to climate change was put into effect, conservative elements began challenging it. I can’t fathom whether these folks just don’t care about our future or whether they have been bought and paid for by corporate campaign contributions or whether they have bought the media blitz paid for by the fossil fuels industry to instill doubt about global warming in spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus of surety here–or maybe a bit of all three! Whatever, such stances certainly put the commons in danger.

      • I have a feeling that it probably is a combination of all three. I also suspect at some point these same conservative elements will realize that something is afoot with regards to global warming and will attempt to play it like it was their words and actions in the past that brought it to light. What makes me feel better sometimes is seeing our most powerful corporations, Google, Starbucks, be leaders in conservation thought. It does lend some power to counterbalance those corporations that lean the other way with regards to climate change.

        • I do wish we might stop fighting over who gets credit for what in the political arena and get on with doing what we need to do to protect the lives of current and future generations of all species.
          Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry folks aren’t on board with this– they are still propagating climate skepticism alongside supposedly “clean” burning coal (a contradiction in terms as I set it, since we haven’t found any clean why to mine and transport this, much less mitigate mercury output with burning), tar sands mining or fracking for natural gas– which processes have a long list of environmental disasters in their wakes.
          On the balance side of things are the folks at CSR wire.
          And if the conservatives are going to claim credit for discovering and mitigating global warming I wish they would get to it sooner rather than later!

    • Travis,

      I agree with your point about “exterior forces that put people in positions to create ecological tragedies.” I wonder how much influence international countries have compared to local law makers. Where there is demand there will be those who will supply. In many natural resource rich nations there will be those who are put in difficult positions to provide the basics of life or preserve their natural heritage. It is unfortunate and indeed a tragedy to see many of these beautiful areas used in these ways.

      • I am not sure what you mean by “international countries” here, Chris a opposed to local law makers. Are you speaking of the countries in the G8 as examples of those with international influence– or perhaps multinational corporations?

  50. It would seem to be that the statement, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, applies well to the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Showing restraint for the common good and welfare of others is a core value of this line of thought. This restraint appears to be learned and passed down through generations as in the case of tribal fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. Thus educating generations to not only preserve a way of life, but to also maintain a relationship with the “Commons.” When people are only given a portion of the truth due to greed and selfish ambitions, this creates an imbalance in the way one may relate to the natural world. It would appear that quick results do not sustain the values of the “Commons” like that of monetary gain. Thus the value of patience and gratitude go out the window and are replace by instant gratification. The emphasis on private property rights further separates us from the “Commons” as mentioned in this paper.

    • Good perspective on quick results failing with respect to caring for the Commons as opposed to making a buck. Your apt comments on the necessity of restraint supports the importance of instituting the precautionary principle in evaluating the potential results of our actions before we carry them out. Another point here is that we do not have the right to effect other lives without their express permission now or in the future through careless acts.

    • Chris,
      I thought that you hit the nail on the head with the comment of the loss of the values of patience and gratitude. I think that is a serious problem of western society. We want it all and we want it now. What is worrisome is that this idea of instant gratification has spread. The growing middle classes of India and China, have witnessed half a century of what was believed the ideal here in America. The current and impending strain on natural resources is going to be incrediable if we all don’t temper this concept.

      • A concerning issue indeed, Travis. Given that we are less than 5 per cent of the world’s population and currently use a quarter of the world’s energy resources to sustain our lifestyle, the planet cannot sustain an entire human population like us. The good news is that we can change ourselves and have a substantial impact in doing so, not only on basic resources, but on what we model for the rest of the world. Each small step we make in the right direction as individuals is very important.

      • Travis,
        I wonder if we could justify our current consumption levels and standard of living if we never had to worry about the depletion of natural resources. I think it is important to have temperance and restraint instilled within us. Whether this restraint is thrust upon us due to the lack of resources or we learn it through grace, I think it is an important principle to keep in mind.

        • Interesting perspective, Chris. This touches on the idea of virtue for its own sake in ethics–and in point of fact, this particular stance would keep up from arguing over whether or not natural resources are limited or whether we can continue to increase their use exponentially.

  51. This article makes such good points concerning our world as far as the commons and the monetary system. We have a reached a time when more people are starting to admit that if we don’t start to care for our natural surroundings we will all be eliminated. However, sacrificing money to care for nature is very difficult for those living in poverty, without any money to buy food or clothing. And, unfortunately these same people are already seeing the devastating effects of climate change, mostly brought on by the actions of those not living in such impoverished conditions.
    More and more research is coming out, and people are traveling to developing countries to help them start to sustain themselves using less input intensive agricultural technologies. Hopefully, this will alleviate the desperation that leads to exploiting the land. And, if they are providing themselves with food, there will be less demand for the food being grown by industrial farming, shipped, and often wasted; all of which is detrimental to the well being of the planet.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kendra. I would say that we might not wish to portray our helping the poor in developing countries as a one way street– we have much to learn from them as well. And all too often, what is portrayed as development from the standpoint of societies like ours is what Vandana Shiva has rightly called “mal-development”– which ravages the lands of others for the benefit of multinationals– there are examples of some locally initiated alternatives on this site.
      The research that is coming out here often confirms that the traditions of place-based peoples had it right all along. Their problems–and they are serious ones– began with colonialism.

    • Good comments Kendra, What is difficult for those impoverished peoples that live on the marginalized land is that much of the best land is or has been taken by industrial farms, palm oil, sugar cane, banana, or was exploited in the past and now only supports industrial ranching. I think assisting them is a great idea, but also reaffirming and educating about prior agricultural technologies would be beneficial. I believe that many people have the prior know-how, it’s just that the knowledge has been ignored as they have chased the false golden carrot that has led them to these impoverished conditions. They can get back to self sustainability and leave desperation behind.

      • An important sense of balance in this response, Travis, thank you. The kindness we feel in assisting others is hardly a bad thing- but true kindness is tempered by respect for what we might learn from those we hope to assist as we foster their self-determination. And as you point out, perhaps the most serious issue in assisting these poor is the fact that so much of the best agricultural land globally has been seized and is now held by agri-business multi-nationals.

    • Hi Kendra! Great point on industrial farming. Makes me wonder why we aren’t utilizing more of these types of techniques at home. Take for example chicken farms. The mom and pop chicken farm has fallen to the wayside and made room for yet another corporate adventure into farming. Corporations get the best of both worlds here by creating frenzied competition bewteen small farmers, driving prices down as low as they can get, and not having to deal with the environmental impacts, such as waste removal. Local farmers no longer hve the resources for disposal because of low prices and competetion has forced them to raise more chickens than should be sustainable according to the size of their parcel. All of the waste ends of in local streams and finds it’s way into local water sources. Corporate profitability rises, competition for local farmers is to great, andlocal profits remain to low for environmental considerations.

      • I agree that industrial farming has little to recommend it, Kelly. And I find attacks on small farms (in the arena of seed saving) by corporations such as Monsanto inexcusable.

  52. It is very difficult to live and prosper in developed countries without developing somesort of self-interest when you take into consideration our economic model. In someways technology has let us down by allowing those who “have” to manipulate nature to yeild more than it would naturally. Our entire economic system is based on consumption. There are serious envirnmental costs associated with the way we live our lives. Is it possible for developed countries to reduce resource consumption (fossil fuels) based on our poorly master-planned urban sprawls? As hard as environmentalist and researchers work to counteract the affects of dimenishing commons the monetary value of goods and services needed to pay ridiculous corporate salaries and increased profit margins negates any headway made reducing social competition.

    • How would you see an answer to your question about reducing resource use in developing countries. If we cannot do this, we have a very serious problem indeed, since the less than 5 per cent of the world’s population in the US currently uses a quarter of its energy resources.
      It is certainly true that we will not be able to honor and protect our commons if we reward CEOs at the rates we currently do.

  53. The “tragedy of the commons” idea is very interesting and I never had thought of the human rationale in that light, but I can agree with some of Hardin’s concepts.
    Our society has been suffering from the self-centered, more for me attitude. Privatization is one of the biggest tragedies. I do not believe that there is any one person on this planet that is more special than anyone else to be able to take a naturally occurring resource and not only put a price on it, but also deny access to it, such as global investors attempting to privatize clean water in Bolivia, which is pushing these native peoples into a global economy. But this tragedy is happening everywhere, not just in other countries.
    I also think it is very important to teach the next generation the value of working together as a community and not for profit. I was so proud of my teenage son yesterday because he noticed the 90 yr old lady next door was carrying heavy bundles of newspapers to her car, he saw that and rushed outside to see if she wanted help. She was so happy that she gave him a big hug. I felt he showed caring and respect for the community when he did that, and of course for no monetary gain and there is hope for a better future if we teach our children our community values.

    • Hi Melissa, which of Hardin’s ideas do you agree with and which of the critiques of his ideas in this essay do you agree with? Can you give and example of the two different stands here? Privatization is actually what Hardin recommended as the only solution to protect the Commons– without, as this essay points out, the history to back him up. Instead the essay agrees with your critique of privatization. The example of water is a tragic one worldwide–and as you note, it is a problem in this country as well, in which many of our water sources are being bought up by private corporations both in the US and abroad.
      Human community and recognition of the Commons are certainly connected. What a lovely example you give our your son’s contribution to community in your neighborhood.

  54. The importance of the essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” is very large in relation to the concepts of natural resource management, sustainability, conservation, and preservation–I know this all-too well, as three of my past instructors have assigned Hardin’s writing a mandatory reading. While I may be familiar with this concept in terms of literary context, I have always struggled to find a good example of a personal life experience to better understand and relate to the underlying values I have yet to confront.

    My best personal example of a “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario, would have to be my experiences growing up on a farm in southwest Missouri. My family had 140 acres predestined for agricultural use, a flowing creek lush with riparian walnut trees, and an apple orchard in the “back forty,” as my papa always called it. The living area rested 1/4 mile north of the road, and there stood a three bedroom house next to a giant yellow barn. We also had a two-acre garden and various storybook trees. This was the perfect setting for a curious little boy like me to grow up, and I began to gain a sense of how things were done in rural America. My family was not the farming type by trade, we had no equipment, few connections, and very little money to even know where to begin–we decided to lease the agricultural land to the dairy farmer whose lot was adjacent to ours. Tom, the farmer, thought the land would be perfect for rotating corn and sorghum for feed to give to his hungry cows, swollen with milk. At the time it was a win-win situation, Tom’s cows were fed with virtually no shipping costs, and my family could enjoy the open country without getting our hands too dirty in an unfamiliar agricultural realm. We found great enjoyment in planting our garden, and smiled at the bounty of our harvest–strawberries, okra, cucumber, and more tomatoes than you can imagine; we at canned stew that sustained us for an entire winter! In the fall, we would harvest the walnuts for a surprisingly lucrative profit, and we made arrangements with another adjacent orchard man to harvest our apples for a share of the cost. These were some of the best memories of my childhood.

    Although it was convenient for us to lease the land, there were many problems with the arrangement. My mother always complained about the smell of fertilizer that leached into our yard and flowed downstream. The insecticides being sprayed onto the crops would create a mist of chemical fog, ultimately landing on our garden–we wanted our food to be chemical-free. The tilling practices lead to significant erosion which made the water of our beautiful creek run a depressing reddish-brown with sediment. During a summer of drought, Tom used irrigation water from the creek for the crop, and the channel had virtually dried up. Interactions between my family and the dairy farmer were never too successful. When expressing our concerns, my father always threatened to disallow renewal of the lease agreement–knowing that this could put my family’s well-being in jeopardy. The farmer didn’t seem to care either way, refused to change his practices, and stated that for what it cost to utilize our land, he might as well spend extra money receiving cattle-feed for convenience. Although we were neighbors with a mutually beneficial arrangement, we could not settle our differences. My family moved back into the city after four years, and my uncle took over the farm–continuing the land-degrading arrangement with Tom.

    When I look back, I wish that there was something I could have done to preserve the integrity of the land. I wish that I could have helped convince my family to take over the agricultural acreage and utilize green farming practices. If I had my way, I would buy those rolling hills, that creek so embedded in the memory of my childhood, and nurture every wildflower, every sunset, and every dark night sky. Even though our acreage meant nothing more than cow-feed to our neighbor and money in the bank for our family, it meant so much more to me. Those fields had character, the black walnuts had rich flavor, and the creek had a laugh you could only here when you listened to it. The spirit of our farm is still in my heart, and I hope that one day I get the chance to bring it back to the way things should be.

    • I especially enjoyed your last paragraph here, John. And of course, as a child there was little you could do about the priorities of the adults around you– except continue to love this land. I hope you someday have a chance to go back and re-establish your reciprocal relationship with this land– or other land in this area. Your example illustrates the way in which care for the land might emerge in a place-based context– in your sense of belonging to this particular bit of land had you been able to grow up and foster succeeding generations there.
      Can you see a way to extend this love for the this particular land to the idea of the Commons on a larger scale?
      Also, I want to ask whether all the times you read Hardin’s work also incorporated a critique of his work in its a-historical assumptions. Historically, private property does not protect the Commons, but has in fact undermined its protections.
      Thanks for your comment.

      • The instructors whom placed this requirement encouraged discussions on the topic, but never made critiques a part of the grade book. If I were to critique Hardin’s work, I would agree with you in that it does not take into account the variability of the interconnected societal relationships occurring on the pasture. I also felt that his writing was too scientific in nature and a very dry read–it did not capture my attention for very long. I believe the Commons should have a more modern version or edition to include private land and public land theories. In my described experience, each farmer could use his or her land in different ways; however, out-dated agriculture customs were present on a small-scale and throughout the mollisol soil types of the Midwest. I would especially like to see the Commons applied to topics like surface water, and groundwater use/renewal as it is a public asset all too frequently subjected to misuse.

        • Thanks for the thoughtful follow up response, John. Hardin’s writing may be dry, but I don’t know that I would agree with you that it is too scientific– perhaps theoretical? But scientific would mean to me that he took historical and social context into better account.
          Public and private land and the Commons would certainly be an important topic for contemporary consideration. It seems like there are also intersections between the two– as in wetlands that might be on private land but be important to the Commons for water and habitat protection.

  55. I really liked this article. You describe a lot of important elements very clearly. In essence, it seems that humans naturally posses an embedded knowledge of how to sustain our resources much like a cell possesses intuitive knowledge to function properly. When given an opportunity, everyone would probably make the ecological or life promoting decision. Only when resources are broken down into private property and distributed through “systems that work against doing the right thing” (in my opinion this includes deregulated free market capitalism which condones privatization of property and services) does humanity go against “natural law.”

    In addition, I like your mention of the “unvalued” ecosystem processes. These are processes vital to a functioning planet, yet are tragically overlooked with regards to our functioning economy. Perhaps one way to include them in our economy would be to force corporations to pay the “true cost” of resources. This would include the eradication of subsidies as well as the implementation of paying for environmental degradation, thereby deterring it.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful analysis and feedback, Josh.
      I very much like your idea of embedded ecological knowledge we have when we ourselves are embedded in the natural world. At the very least, we–as with most species– have a natural place in ecological systems that derive from the long-term adaptive processes that created those systems in the first place –and no species intentionally will destroy its own means of survival. At least no species that has survived very long.
      I agree with you on the score of private property. Not only has the dividing up of former Commons into private parcels undermined their care, but the current corporate push toward the privatization of things like water I find very scary.
      I would also like to see corporations pay some semblance of true cost for the ecosystem services they use. We certainly have things backwards when we reward corporations for creating things few of us want (toxic chemicals, degraded soil, climate change, etc.) It only makes sense that a society should pay for what it actually wants– though this means fighting our way through the morass of “perverse subsidies” currently on the books to delete them. I would begin with the millions of dollars in oil drilling subsides for industries that haven’t even drilled a test well–and the subsidies that make commercially produced crops transported half way around the world cheaper to the consumer than those grown locally and sustainably could come next.
      Number one priority to get this reform done effectively is to inhibit the wholesale lobbying/campaign spending of corporate “persons” under the recent Supreme Court ruling.

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