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
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
A 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
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
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