To what extent is the tragedy of the commons restricting option when dealing with a global ecological crisis?

Essay, 2011

8 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. What is the tragedy of the commons?

3. First Conclusion

4. Second Conclusion

5. Answering the question


1. Introduction

“We don’t need to save the world, just spend it more wisely.”[1]

This essay deals with the extent to which the tragedy of the commons prevents from dealing with a global ecological crisis. It is out of question that we face an urgent ecological crisis now showing itself in all its facets: “About half the world’s wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone […] 90 per cent of the large predatory fish are gone, and 75 per cent of marine fisheries are now overfished […] [T]wenty per cent of the corals are gone […] [H]alf the world’s temperate and tropical forests are gone. […] Species are disappearing […].”[2] You could go on and on.

Bruce Lipton brings it to the point when he says in his book “Spontaneous Evolution”: “We all want to fix the world […] our efforts […] are driven by a deeper, more fundamental behavioral programming, known as the biological imperative – the drive to survive. […] if the planet goes down, so do we. So, armed with good intentions, […], we wonder, “Where do we begin?” […] We think, “I am just one person - one out of billions. What can I do against this mess?” Combine the enormity of the mission with how small and helpless we think we are, and our good intensions fly out the window.”[3]

In this short essay I want to focus my attention to how the tragedy of the commons is restricting force and what this means for the fight against the global crisis. As you will see the dilemma described by Bruce Lipton preventing us or government or whosoever from preserving the environment is explained by the tragedy of the commons.

I have organized the essay as follows. First, I begin with a definition of the tragedy of the commons to have a basis understanding of the problematic. I then discuss the relationship between this dilemma and a global ecological crisis. Next I refer the situation to the current political context. Finally I will answer the question asked and I will broach a possible solution.

2. What is the tragedy of the commons?

The tragedy of the commons is describing a dilemma stating that common resources are overexploited. Examples for common resources are clean air and water, streets without traffic holdup and fish.[4] [5]

“The tragedy of the commons’ arises when it is difficult and costly to exclude potential users from common-pool resources that yield finite flows of benefits, as a result of which those resources will be exhausted by rational, utility-maximizing individuals rather than conserved for the benefit of all.”[6]

The term was first used in an article written by Garrett Hardin in 1968 published in the journal “Science”. The author wrote this article against the background of the cold war and the atomic dilemma between the former USSR and the US. Stating that we have to acknowledge the planet to be finite, he can be seen as pioneer ahead of his times. Therefore he points out that “it is clear that we will greatly increase human misery if we do not, during the immediate future, assume that the world available to the terrestrial human population is finite.”[7]

Hardin tells the story of a herdsman who keeps cattle on a common pasture. It is obvious that he wants to have as much cattle as possible in his own self-interest since he then makes more profit. “But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy.“ [8] Everyone wants to maximize his gains denying or not considering that the pasture is limited and open to other herdsmen. The result of course is that the individual seems to be better off but only for a short period of time because nobody can use the pasture anymore once it is overgrazed. The author puts it the following way: “The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.”[9]

But what you have to take into account is that “[E]ven when herdsmen understand the long-run consequences of their actions, they generally are powerless to prevent such damage without some coercive means of controlling the actions of each individual.”[10] That’s why it is indeed a tragedy. The dilemma is that if you don’t maximize your gains by preserving the environment that you need to survive others will do it. When others do the damages your contribution to preventing them is marginal. But if you do maximize profits like everybody else overgrazing will stop cattle breeding at the pasture altogether. Then you can go on to the next pasture and to the next… But as Hardin has pointed out our planet is not infinite. Furthermore there is no insurance that the damage will be recovering.

Eventually living in denial prevents human beings from accepting the full consequences of their doings and it makes it easier for them to go on living instead of changing their behavior.

In the following I will point out the connection between the concept of the tragedy of the commons and the helplessness of mankind when trying to defeat the ecological crisis of our planet.

3. First Conclusion

In my opinion the tragedy of the commons is not restricting option but THE restricting option when dealing with a global ecological crisis. The story of the herdsmen has shown that the individual will ask: “What difference will it make when I don’t act like all the others? I will only be worse off than all the others. I may see the need to act differently but I can’t change anything all by myself.” That’s exactly the problem when dealing with the ecological crisis. When you don’t consider a herdsman but a country you can also see that this country will only act in his own self-interest asking: “Why should we preserve the environment when others are destroying it? Only our economy will suffer and we lose our competitive advantage.” [11] In other words: “Everyone is waiting for everyone else to act first, the result being that no one acts at all.”[12]

What they just deny to see is that every human being is living on the same planet which is being overexploited. Considering the concept of the tragedy of the commons to be true every individual can be seen as “Homo economicus”, which means that human-beings are seen as rational, self-centered and selfish individuals.”[13] [14] This view – also known as “rational choice theory”[15] - however would undermine a solution of the problem. When everyone is acting selfishly the dilemma simply can’t be solved. That’s why we have to change our value system that economic growth and material success lead to acknowledgement in society, happiness and well-being. As Speth Gus has underlined in his article this causal relationship has been proven simply wrong.[16] Furthermore Alan Durning emphasizes that “[P]eople living in the nineties are on average four-and-a-half times richer than their great-grandparents were at the turn of the century, but they are not four-and-a-half times happier. […] Human fulfillment […] appear[s] to have withered or stagnated in the rush to riches.”[17]

It is rather shared common interest that future generations can live peacefully on our beautiful planet than the own self-interest that should motivate us to change our attitude and finally our behavior. It is obvious that one contribution compared to world population is marginal. But if some people change their mind and believe that their contribution is worth it the “critical mass”[18] can be achieved and change is possible.[19] The critical mass refers to the idea that only a certain number of people is needed to take along all the others and have a new world view or paradigm.

As a result the idea of man might be converted into “Homo reciprocans”, which means that humans are cooperative, “that altruism is real, and that people often think of others in their purchasing and production decisions.”[20] [21] Bruce Lipton compares world population living together on earth with the cells “living together” in the human body asking: “how can 50 trillion cells live in harmony and peace while a mere 7 billion people are on the verge of annihilating each other […]?”[22] Therefore he points out that we can learn from our own body that “success [can be] [is] measured by how well each organ fulfils its job of co-operating with other systems”[23]. Transferred to the current problem, success should be measured by how well every individual cooperates with another individual and accordingly how well every government cooperates with another government rather than measuring the salary or the GDP for example.


[1] (Lipton, 2009)

[2] (Gus)

[3] (Lipton, 2009)

[4] cf. (Prof. Konrad Stahl, 2009)

[5] cf. (Hardin, 1968)

[6] (Ostrom, 2008)

[7] (Hardin, 1968)

[8] (Hardin, 1968)

[9] (Hardin, 1968)

[10] (Library of Economics and Liberty)

[11] cf. (Lipton, 2009)

[12] (Connelly & Smith, 2002)

[13] cf. (Winslow, 2011)

[14] cf. (Investopedia)

[15] (Connelly & Smith, 2002)

[16] cf. (Gus)

[17] (Durning, 1998)

[18] (Lipton, 2009)

[19] cf. (Lipton, 2009)

[20] (Winslow, 2011)

[21] cf. (Dohmen, Falk, Huffman, & Sunde, 2006)

[22] (Lipton, 2009)

[23] (Lipton, 2009)

Excerpt out of 8 pages


To what extent is the tragedy of the commons restricting option when dealing with a global ecological crisis?
Sciences Po., Paris
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
640 KB
Ecological Crisis, Tragedy of the commons, Rational choice theory
Quote paper
Julia Hetzel (Author), 2011, To what extent is the tragedy of the commons restricting option when dealing with a global ecological crisis?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: To what extent is the tragedy of the commons restricting option when dealing with a global ecological crisis?

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free