Ecology Tragedy of the Commons
Amity Doolittle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0116


In 1968, Garrett Hardin brought the concept of the tragedy of the commons into public debate in an article titled “Tragedy of the Commons,” published in Science (Hardin 1968, cited under Canonical Works). As an ecologist, Hardin was concerned with human population growth and the inevitable environmental degradation resulting from overpopulation. Drawing on insights from Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Populations, written in 1798 (see Malthus 2008, cited under Population Growth), Hardin warned that the exponential growth of the human population would soon overburden the world’s finite natural resources. To illustrate his point, Hardin presented a parable of a pasture open to all. He asked the reader to consider a flock of animals grazing on the common ground. Hardin argued that rational individuals, individuals motivated by self-interest to maximize their wealth, will continue to add to their flocks to increase their personal wealth. Every animal added to the commons contributes to the degradation of the resources. However, the increasing use and ultimate degradation of the commons are small burdens to the individual user, relative to the gain in wealth accrued to that individual. In Hardin’s parable, all individuals will naturally follow the same pattern until the resource is inevitably destroyed. “Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons” (Hardin 1968, p. 1244). Hardin concludes stating “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” (Hardin 1968, p. 1244). According to Hardin, the only way to avert the tragedy of the commons is through government regulation or exclusive, private ownership of resources. Theoretical and experimental research has shown that Hardin’s theory is correct only under specific and limited conditions: the users are anonymous, the system is entirely open access with no property rights whatsoever, users are unable to communicate with each other, and users lack long-term interest in the resources. Looking beyond the theoretical and experimental, the majority of scholars of the commons have argued that Hardin’s thesis is deeply flawed. Arguably, the most important outcome from Hardin’s article on the supposed tragedy of the commons is that it stimulated a large and important body of research on the commons from a diversity of disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, geography, economics, ecology, and political science. The vast majority of this research is aimed at understanding the conditions under which communities or user groups organize to successfully govern their common-pool resources. Furthermore, the majority of the new scholarship on the commons has dismantled Hardin’s deterministic notion that people will always degrade the commons.

General Overview

Hardin 1968 (cited under Canonical Works) touched off an entirely new field of interdisciplinary research focused on common-pool resources. In response to Garrett Hardin, scholars from economics, political science, anthropology, geography, sociology, and ecology began to demonstrate both real-world and experimental scenarios where communities develop norms and institutions to regulate their use of common resources. Scholarship on the commons in the 1980s and 1990s focused on addressing the major assumptions within Hardin’s model and on clarifying ambiguous language, such as the conflation of common property with open access. An excellent entry point into the scholarly literature on common-pool resource management is Berkes, et al. 1989. These authors focus not on the “tragedy of the commons” but rather the “benefits of the commons.” In a similar vein, the contributions to McCay and Acheson 1990 provide a number of rich case studies from around the world, demonstrating the ability of people to cooperatively manage and benefit from common-pool resources. Agrawal 2001 and van Laerhoven and Ostrom 2007 provide clear and accessible reviews of the debates, defining key terms and discussing the merits of varying methodical approaches to studying the management of common-pool resources. For an invaluable historical approach to the traditions and trends in the study of the commons, as well as comprehensive case studies of the management of common-pool resources across the globe, Bromley, et al. 1986 and Ostrom, et al. 2002, both edited volumes, are key resources. These two volumes, published sixteen years apart, are the results of expert panels in which biological and social scientists convened to systematically assess the state of common-pool resource management across the globe. Bromley, et al. 1986 was motivated by a perceived “environmental emergency” (p. vii) that was taking place as modernization disrupted traditional practices of community management of common-pool resources. The scholars who contributed to the volume focused on untangling confusions over terms and teased out the various rights, duties, and privileges associated with the regulation of common-pool resources. A primary concern of scholars in this early phase of research was to define a set of principles that can be broadly applied to studies of common-pool resources and to identify causes for success and failure of different common-resource management regimes. In Ostrom, et al. 2002, scholars build on the findings of previous research, most importantly recognizing that there are multiple and diverse institutional arrangements that can result in successful management of the commons. Therefore, the research in this volume focuses on exploring the diversity of property rights regimes that can be used to regulate common-pool resources. The case studies contained within Ostrom, et al. 2002 demonstrates a more nuanced understanding of the management of common-pool resources than the earlier Bromley, et al. 1986. Ostrom, et al. 2002 addresses the challenges such as the “free-rider problem,” scientific uncertainty and complex systems, and the cross-scale institutional linkages implicated in the management of common-pool resources.

  • Agrawal, Arun. 2001. Common property institutions and sustainable governance of resources. World Development 29.10: 1649–1672.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0305-750X(01)00063-8E-mail Citation »

    Explores the relative merits of statistical, comparative, and case study approaches to the study of common-pool resources. Suggests a framework for future research on how people self-organize in order to sustainably govern common-pool resources.

  • Berkes, Fikret, David Feeny, Bonnie J. McCay, and James M. Acheson. 1989. The benefits of the commons. Nature 340.6229: 91–93.

    DOI: 10.1038/340091a0E-mail Citation »

    An excellent and brief overview summarizing the debate around the tragedy of the commons. Good entry point for undergraduates. Argues, from case studies, that whether something is open access, common property, private property, or state property neither determines the outcomes nor solves social and environmental problems.

  • Bromley, Daniel W., ed. 1992. Making the commons work: Theory, practice, and policy. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies.

    E-mail Citation »

    Authors focus not on the so-called tragedy of the commons but on the possibilities of the commons. Collectively they argue that self-governing institutions of local users can manage natural resources efficiently, thereby challenging the conventional wisdom that resources need to be owned either privately or by the state.

  • Bromley, Daniel, David Feeny, Jere Gilles, et al., eds. 1986. Proceedings of the conference on common property resources management, April 21–26, 1985 (Annapolis, Maryland). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book includes twenty-two case studies from around the world, focusing on fisheries and wildlife, water rights, pastures and rangelands, agricultural land, and forest resources. A key resource for anyone interested in understanding the development of theoretical constructs central to all studies of common-pool resource systems. Organized around an analytic scheme based on the institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework, this is used to study how institutions affect human incentives and behavior.

  • McCay, Bonnie J., and James M. Acheson, eds. 1990. The question of the commons: The culture and ecology of communal resources. Arizona Studies in Human Ecology. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Scholars respond to the abstract and simplified narrative that underlies the thesis of the tragedy of the commons, by exploring the historical, economic, political, and cultural context in which individuals and communities cooperatively manage common resources. Collectively the contributors argue that the individualist bias of Hardin’s commons model underestimates the ability of people to cooperatively manage common resources.

  • Ostrom, Elinor, Thomas Dietz, Nives Dolšak, Paul C. Stern, Susan Stovich, and Elke U. Weber, eds. 2002. The drama of the commons. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comprising case studies and multiple disciplinary approaches to examining effective management of the commons through collective action. Three conclusions are reached: neither local-level nor state-level institutions are sufficient for effective management of the commons, cross-scale institutional linkages are needed, and the levels of scientific uncertainty about common-pool resources require complex adaptive systems of management.

  • van Laerhoven, Frank, and Elinor Ostrom. 2007. Traditions and trends in the study of the commons. International Journal of the Commons 1.1: 3–28.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides a good overview of which peer-reviewed journals publish the majority of the research on the commons, the range of disciplines exploring questions of the commons, and which common-pool resources are most often studied.

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