An Alternative to the Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin, 1968)

Garrett Hardin’s seminal work “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) concluded that overpopulation of our finite planet was imminent and that our natural freedom to reproduce should be reconsidered.  Hardin’s premise was that maintaining the highest good for the maximum number of people is impossible, since two simultaneous variables could never be equally be reached, and that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, while looking out for the best interest of the individual, does not consider the best of society.  His popular allegory of a cattle farmer in the commons explained that a farmer by exploiting an open field receives a positive gain of one, and suffers only a fraction of one since his suffering is shared by all, hence creating a tragedy of the commons overtime.

Hardin concluded that no culture ever solved this tragedy and that an appeal to man’s conscience would simply put man in a Bateson “double bind” (p.1246).  Man would be damned if he did not follow suit and limit his reproduction, and yet damned if he did because the rest would exploit the commons before he could.   Additionally, the grandson of Charles Darwin, Charles Galton Darwin, asserted that survival of the fittest favors those that produce large fractions of offspring, therefore appealing to man’s conscience is of little assistance and eliminates the conscience overtime (Hardin, 1968, p.1246).

Interestingly, Hardin’s popular and well recited allegory forgets to consider that the life of a cattle farmer and the environment of the commons are both stochastic rather than deterministic (Feeny, Berkes, McCay, and Acheson, 1990), and that a linear function can not always be applied.  Two variables can not be maximized in a linear equation, but they can be in a multi-dimensional system which is indeed the world in which we inhabit.  Society and man himself can equally benefit if we lengthen the time scale in which we consider the commons.  Man might not be able to gain his “positive one” today, but if he could sustain his one for tomorrow, his benefit still outweighs the cost.

Limiting our freedom within the commons does not appeal to man’s conscience because Darwinian theory recites that survival depends on the fittest. However, if we consider that survival belongs to the mutualists (Robertson, 2014) rather than the fittest, our conscience might follow suit.  Feeny et. al (1990) states that contrary to Hardin’s conclusions, common-property resources can be managed through private, communal, and state property rights and that Hardin’s simplistic model of the commons primarily pertains to open access land with a lack of definition.  Economist and Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom (2011) suggests that while Hardin mentions societies that have chosen the route of rivalry, others, in the true form of mutualism, have communally decided to govern the land for the benefit of all.  Similar to Hardin’s mutual coercion (p. 1247), which states if it is impossible to have the best for all people, then we must mutually decide to relinquish some of our freedoms for the benefit of all. Ostrom suggests eight design principles when governing common pool resources at any scale (e.g. governmental, private, or communal) (2011).  Ostrom’s definition of common pool resources gives hope to Bateson’s double bind.

Man could chose to see himself as a part within a communal whole, much like the early Hawaiians that governed watersheds by tribal families from ridgetop to reef (Leighton, 2017).  This type of solution, however, is indeed not scientific or technical as Hardin ascertains (1968).  Instead, this solution “extends our morality” (Hardin, 1968, p. 13), and asks us to be communal beings.  Our communal consciousness allows us to consider a land ethic in which we are integrally connected to all things and all things to us (Leopold, 1949).  While this land ethic seems contrary to Darwinian theory or even America’s manifest destiny, the truth is that life on planet Earth is highly interconnected and mutually dependent.  Our assumption that we are singular cattle farmers living with a linear environment is simply false.  The universe began a series of parts that collided into a whole and began to connect.  What is left is a remnant of single celled organisms which learned to share the costs and enjoy the communal benefits.  Eventually unicellular organisms realized that life was better shared and multicellular beings evolved, yet mutualism was not lost.



Feeney, D., Berkes, F., McCay, B. J., & Acheson, J. M. (1990). The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later . Human Ecology, 18(1), 1-19. Retrieved September 09, 2017.

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248. Retrieved September 08, 2017.

Leopold, A. (1968). A Sand County Almanac. London, etc.: Oxford University Press.

Ostrom, E. (2011). Governing the commons: the evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge, Mass: Cambridge University Press.

Robertson, M. (2014). Sustainability principles and practice. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

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