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No. 1602:
The Tragedy of the Commons

Today, the tragedy of the commons. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Garrett Hardin made a huge impact with his 1968 article, The Tragedy of the Commons. Go to the web today and you'll find every kind of exegesis, analysis, and application of it. Perhaps I'm beating a dead horse to revisit it, but I think it's worth reminding ourselves of the dilemma he presents.

First, the two words tragedy and commons: Hardin quoted Whitehead, who called a tragedy "the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." Macbeth was tragic because he was doomed by his own nature from the first scene of the play.

PastureA commons was a pasture that belonged collectively to a village. Everyone in the village grazed cattle on the commons. As the number of animals owned by the village approached the capacity of the commons, the problem took the following form:

A villager could buy one more cow and gain the full income that a cow provided. The damage caused by one cow too many grazing the pasture would be small compared with the gain. Of course, the entire community would suffer from the damage. Consequently, every member of the village was motivated to keep adding cows. The tragedy is that, to preserve the commons, the personal freedom of the villagers had to be curtailed.

Of course the commons represents a degree of socialism. Without socialism, the problem goes away. If each villager owned his own grazing land, he'd create the balance needed to preserve it. However, we all recognize many commons that we have to own collectively: air, oceans, lakes, rivers -- and your local library.

Hardin offers the National Parks as inescapable commons. He pointed out in 1968 that Yosemite would have to begin limiting free access. Today, you go to the Internet and make your reservation for a Yosemite campsite next summer. It's first come, first served until the park is full.

It's apparent that Hardin is most concerned with overpopulation. The article gains momentum as he argues the need for controlling human reproduction. But the road he travels is fascinating in its own right. He argues that conscience is self-eliminating. If we try to rely on conscience to control population, the result will be the Darwinian extinction of families that exercise restraint.

The recurring mantra of this disturbing paper is Hardin's relentless insistence on the tragic need to give our freedoms over to the mutual good. Perhaps the most important single section is one entitled Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon.

Like you, I loathe giving up any personal freedom. Hardin is wise to use the term tragedy in his title. You and I must agree to suffer a tragic curtailment of our freedom -- we must vote in laws against running red lights, or fouling the air, if we hope to preserve the commons. That, says Hardin, is the inescapable tragedy.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hardin, G., The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, Vol. 162, 1968, pp. 1243-1248.

Lawn bowling on the Commons in Crediton, England, 1974

Lawn bowling on the Commons in Crediton, England, 1974
Now a playing field, no longer a grazing area.