Flock of sheep grazing in a green pasture.

Photo by ArtHouse Studio from Pexels

Is The Tragedy of the Commons False? Questioning a Systems Archetype

A couple of weeks ago I saved an article for later: The tragedy of the commons is a false and dangerous myth.” (Aeon.co) I am a sucker for most headlines that question widespread assumptions. But this one especially caught my eye.

The concept of The Tragedy of the Commons has been disseminated far and wide as a systemic explanation for why we fail to address many of the challenges we face at the intersection of ecology and economics. In my very first semester as an undergrad, Garrett Hardin’s original essay The Tragedy of the Commons” was assigned reading in my favorite class — Fish & Wildlife 1002: Ecology, Values, and Human Impact. This summer, I was in a graduate seminar where The Tragedy of the Commons came up again. I’m not alone. According to Google Scholar, nearly 48,000 people have cited Hardin’s idea in their own research.

Is the real tragedy that we were misled from the beginning?

Recapping The Tragedy of the Commons

Imagine a pastoral landscape. A grassland occupied by shepherds and their flocks. Everyone shares the grass. Animals graze. Shepards harvest their herds. All is well.

Over time, seeking to increase their individual wealth, the shepherds increase the size of their flocks. However, the grassland remains the same size. Larger flocks overgraze the land, and declining environmental quality decreases wealth and wellbeing for everyone.

Individuals in this system have no incentive to moderate behavior that deplete the commons. Even if some altruistic people do take unilateral action, their contributions to conservation will be undone by less scrupulous actors continuing business-as-usual.

This is, more or less, how Hardin describes The Tragedy of the Commons archetype in his original 1968 article.

As a remedy to The Tragedy of the Commons, Hardin proposes two solutions.

  1. Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” No one enjoys taxes, but we accept them because we recognize their overall purpose and utility.
  2. Alternatively, real estate logic can be applied to parcel the commons up to sell to private parties to manage as they see fit. Yes, those left out of the enclosure suffer and lose some degree of freedom. But, what is freedom compared to universal ruin?

Logical. Concise. What’s the issue?

This is where that article I saved fits in. Environmental writer Michelle Niijuis points out there are issues with Hardin’s argument.

First — there are actual examples of communities successfully managing commons for generations.

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (in 2009), refuted Hardin’s rather bleak outlook by citing actual examples of management systems developed by communities in Switzerland, Japan, and the Philippines to create prosperity and preserve the commons for centuries.

She described the features of systems successfully preserving the commons for centuries:

  1. Well Defined Community
  2. Reliable Monitoring
  3. Reasonable Balance of Costs and Benefits
  4. Fair Conflict Resolution
  5. Escalating Punishments for Cheaters
  6. Good Relationships Between Actors

While these precepts may be unfamiliar, they have been put to use in the development of multilateral, community-led conservation programs in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Zambia.

Second, after writing that famous essay, Garret Hardin went on to stake out explicitly nationalist and racist opinions. A multiethnic society is insanity,” he once told an interviewer. The Southern Poverty Law Center maintains a profile on Hardin, noting that he used the specter of environmental destruction and ethnic conflict to promote policies that can be fairly described as fascist.”

I reread The Tragedy of the Commons.” I’m embarrassed that the unfavorable comparison of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Salem witch trials didn’t raise at least a yellow flag on my first read through.

Proceed with caution and cooperation

Now that we have more context, how should we think of The Tragedy of the Commons going forward? If it’s possible, can we divorce the man from his idea and continue to use the archetype as a shorthand to describe common system behavior? Do contradictory examples from reality disprove the archetype? Is the idea verboten because of its originator’s worldview?

I think we can continue to use the archetype, but proceed with caution.

When working with The Tragedy of the Commons, we should be on guard against solutions and ideas that exclude, disempower, or harm stakeholders. The environmentally progressive especially should internalize how The Tragedy of the Commons mindset can unintentionally create alignment with authoritarian ideas. We may also be well served to study Ostrom and learn from communities that successfully manage their commons. In her body of work, we may find wisdom for facilitating multilateral futures projects as well as for writing scenarios that capture the possibility of cooperation.

The System Archetypes are abstract, but the situations we encounter in life and work are specific. We encounter unique actors, with their own motivations and relationships to each other and the commons. Archetypical systems suggest that there may be archetypical solutions. However, System archetypes are only a story. We must be critically aware of how the assumptions embedded in the stories we tell influence the solutions we choose.

More Reading

The Tragedy of the Commons, Garret Hardin. Science

The miracle of the commons, Nichelle Niijuhis. Aeon

Elinor Ostrom: An uncommon woman for the commons, Kenneth J. Arrow, Robert O. Keohane, and Simon A. Levin. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Systems Archetypes I: Diagnosing Systemic Issues and Designing Interventions, Daniel Kim. Systems Thinker

September 13, 2021 Systems Thinking The Tragedy of the Commons


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