Week 4 Narratives – Tragedy of the Commons
Tragedy of the Commons
For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual.
The term and concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons” was first used by William Foster Lloyd in 1833. It was later developed and popularized by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. Taylor, in Our Limits Transgressed, mentions Hardin and his Neo-Malthusian writings in Chapter 2.
This is a critical concept to understand in the context of natural resource policy and regulation. In its most basic form, the “commons” is an unregulated resource shared by the public (or “commoners” as Lloyd phrased it). Hardin uses this framework to discuss the problem of overpopulation, which was a very popular issue in the late 1960s. Whether or not you believe overpopulation is an issue today, focus on what this theory is trying to teach.
Hardin argues that the “invisible hand,” as promoted by famous economist Adam Smith in 1776, is insufficient to protect the capitalist economies and the public from exploiting resources. In the commons, each person/institution/company will seek to maximize profits from that resource. We get locked into a system that compels people to use a resource until it no longer exists.
The example he uses is a commons pasture used by several different people for livestock grazing. Without any regulation, each person will steadily increase the number of livestock in that pasture because they know the other person will do the same; they don’t want to be left behind as another entity is using a resource they could use.
consider what Hardin states towards the end of his paper: “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” What do you think of this? Is there more freedom when shared natural resources are left to the individual choices of those who use it, or is there greater freedom when resource policy wisely uses and conserves what we have? If the latter is the case, then to what extent should it be regulated, conserved, or preserved?
The tragedy of the commons plays out in many policy making decisions in environmental regulation. One of the more obvious examples is the regulating livestock grazing of public domain lands in the western United States. The wide open spaces and unregulated public domain lands of the west were appealing to farmers and ranchers in the 1800s. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided settlers with 160 acres of public lands that could be converted to private land after meeting the Act’s requirements. 160 acres of land in the Midwest compared to the Intermountain West are quite different in terms of forage productivity for livestock grazing. Ranchers needed more land in the arid west to sustain their operations so they used public domain lands adjacent to their homesteaded land. This use of the “commons” lead to battles and “range wars” between competing operators and also lead to serious degradation of public domain lands. When the Dust Bowl in the 1920s and 1930s pushed the resource to the edge, the “commons” needed to be regulated and the Taylor Grazing Act was passed in 1934. Signed by President Roosevelt, it was intended to “stop injury to the public grazing lands [excluding Alaska] by preventing overgrazing and soil deterioration; to provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development; [and] to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the public range.”
The Taylor Grazing Act created the U.S. Grazing Service, which when it was combined with the General Lands Office in the 1950s, became the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 pre-empted the Taylor Grazing Act and became the organic act for the BLM.
Click here for more information about the Taylor Grazing Act, see the following supplemental information:
The tragedy of the commons continues to be played out today. Somewhat prophetically, Hardin saw the day when there would be too many people in National Parks, leading to resource and experiential degradation.
On Memorial Day weekend in 2015, Arches National Park had to close its gates as too many people were trying to get into the park and a public safety issue emerged. The park superintendent has proposed requiring people to make reservation before they come to the park. They have been approved to charge higher entrance fees during peak-use hours. Read the following articles before participating in this week’s discussion: