The Tragedy of the Commons: Hardin v Ostrom

The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is why it is extraordinarily difficult to halt the headlong dash towards ecological destruction. Its excuse to justify privatization is bogus. On the contrary, privatization is a pretext to disrupt existing sustainable arrangements.

The real problem is expansion. From time to time a species evolves able to exploit new resources. Humans are such a species. But the strategies to take maximum advantage become disastrous when expansion suddenly reaches limits. Due to the exponential principle, that moment will arrive not only suddenly, but unexpectedly soon. A typical example would be a pond  where a lily, doubling in size each year, had taken 20 years to cover 1/16th of the area. Two years later, 3/4 of the pond remains free of lilies, but two more years and the pond becomes choked.

However, the worst possible strategies remain firmly in place because they were previously successful. They will normally be individualistic and aggressive as this will have enabled the winners to achieve maximum expansion. The onset of the Tragedy is sudden, but various human societies have been struggling to adapt for several centuries. Despite Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, growth remains unquestioned, world -wide, and many societies still have larger than replacement families.

A useful line of research would be how amphibians and birds eventually emerged from this phase, as clearly both were ultimately successful. So there is hope for homo sapiens. Unlike us they could not simply develop new cultural patterns. bu at least prototype amphibians and birds could only destroy themselves: they could not, like us, endanger the entire ecosphere.

But humans have not yet done this because

No one can afford to put themselves at a temporary disadvantage.

Why are transnational corporations (TNCs) still aggressively behaving as though resources – and ways of disposing of pollution – are limitless? The short term answer is that they are the main beneficiaries – they are not the first to suffer the ecological damage which is already hitting many communities, or the potential mass extinction of corals, or habitat loss, or unprecedented floods or droughts, wildfires . . . A longer term reason is that no one competitor can afford to be at a disadvantage, so all must go on exploiting, and selling the products to the rest of us until complete co-operation can be assured.

My Book Résumé (another Page in this blog) explains how one so-called primitive society developed strategies better suited to their new situation. It was as close as you could get to the Basic Income as was possible in a moneyless society. But we don’t know how long it took them. We do have the archaeologically excavated Easter Island as evidence of just how gruesome the transition must have been.

The original essay

“The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin, Science, 162(1968):1243-1248.

explains how the worst behaved gain, temporarily, so that they are in a stronger position when the crisis occurs. Rapanui (Easter Island) was a classic fulfilment of what Hardin unknowingly predicted the first time a society with a culture which has evolved to take maximum advantage of the capacity to expand meets eco-limits, but he failed to recognize that its lesson was limited to the end of a growth phase. Hardin is right, but only in those specific circumstances, which happen to be global just now.

On the other hand, as Kate Raworth notes in Doughnut Economi.cs , Elinor Ostrom and Vandana Shiva misinterpret managed schemes as ‘open access’, but more importantly, they too miss the cultural context of trying to prolong growth.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II reminds us that devastation is steadily advancing on many fronts.


Busy readers can stop now, apart from a plea. Wikipedia explains that it is not the place for ‘original insights’. They must be referred to, preferably by someone suitably eminent. Whilst their compliment is gratifying, I still need the reference.

What follows is more detail on the evolution of co-operation including how the basic income can help, why privatization has become an understandable distraction, and refutation of the ‘rats’ hypothesis on Easter Island.

All Hardin advises in the above link is “Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” Neither privatization nor capitalism played any part in the Easter Island catastrophe.

A precarious, almost unanimous agreement was reached at the ‘Paris’ Agreement in December 2015, but the 2017 Trump administration in the USA appears to threaten that (near) unanimity.

At first sight, the ‘Tragedy’ is contradicted by the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’

Robert Axelrod goes into more detail in his book The Evolution of Co-operation

The example given is of two individuals who will gain marginally if they can trust each other, but each will gain more if the other keeps her/his word, and they renege. Axelrod shows that if the two individuals expect to meet in future, then co-operation is the best strategy, hence the evolution of co-operation.

But what if there are hundreds of individuals, who must all trust each other? If anyone thinks that what happened on Rapanui (Easter Island) is not relevant for us, the real life situation for the Easter Islanders was the same as it is now globally: a large number of separate individuals or groups must all be able to trust each other to stop destroying the ecosphere due to our competitive, consumerist culture. The Easter Islanders failed this test dismally.

Globally the problem is far worse than on Rapanui, where there were only 11 separate clans. All independent nation states, and countless private companies, many of whom have been successful due to their aggressive methods, must unanimously show restraint in the face of ecological limits. A minority who continue to ignore or deny limits, or renege on agreements to observe limits gain a competitive advantage at the expense of the rest – in the short term –  and  are therefore in a stronger position when the inevitable crunch comes.

Up to date examples could include the aggressive privatization of water by Nestlé., but neither hydraulic fracturing nor fishing involve privatizing formerly common resources.

The Tragedy is not limited to open access. The same principle applies to over-production of steel, or cars, or fracking, as limits are approached. The first to cease production merely weakens their economic strength in the here and now.

The validity of the ’Tragedy’ in an expanding culture as forcibly illustrated on Rapanui remains. For five centuries the Easter Islanders could take room for expansion for granted. Even there, by the time Captain Cook took an interpreter in 1774 the hungry and impoverished descendants of their desperate, and hence briefly cannibal ancestors were beginning to develop strategies that Ostrom and Shiva would recognize. They and Axelrod are right – but not in the short term.

The crisis  in Venezuela is an unintended instance of the Tragedy.  Due to mismanagement, oil is being kept in the ground, but unilaterally. (That is not necessarily proof of what any socialist governments would do.)

Some claim that the fate of Easter Island was caused by rats. Here is Jared Diamond’s own response to that theory, but even if this hypothesis is correct it is still an example of an invasive species taking temporary but catastrophic advantage of the ability to expand.

But we can no more stop economic growth before it is too late than the Easter Islanders could stop felling trees. Or can we? I am indebted to Richard Wilkinson for a proposal more specific than ’mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’, based on actual precedents:

“The more equitable the system for the distribution of necessities, the greater the identity of interest within the society when faced by ecological problems.”

The book from which this unwitting advocacy of the universal, unconditional Basic (Citizens’) Income, the main thrust of this weblog, is taken predates internet links: Wilkinson, Richard G. (1973) Poverty and Progress Methuen, London, p48.

What Elinor Ostrom and Vandana Shiva illustrate will become the norm, but their in due course valuable contributions are currently doing more harm than good if they are used to play down the seriousness of the threat posed by the ‘Tragedy‘. The End of the World as we know it need not be at hand, but on current trends, it is.


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