The tragedy of the commons – includes related article on ecologist Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons thesis

The tragedy of the commons – includes related article on ecologist Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons thesis – Cover Story

Joanna Burger

How do we manage resources that seem to belong to everyone? Fish swimming in lakes, game mammals wandering the open plains, and birds migrating overhead belong to everyone and yet are protected by no one. For the sturgeon and bison this lack of protection spelled disaster, for the passenger pigeon, extinction. Today, protecting such common-pool resources has become a challenge, not only on the local scale but on national and global ones as well.

Thirty years ago this December, ecologist Garrett Hardin invoked the analogy of a “commons” in support of his thesis that as human populations increased, there would be increasing pressure on finite resources at both the local and particularly the global levels, with the inevitable result of overexploitation and ruin. He termed this phenomenon the “tragedy of the commons.”(1) More specifically, this phrase means that an increase in human population creates an increased strain on limited resources, which jeopardizes sustainability. Hardin argued that common resources could be exploited by anyone who could assert their rights to do so. He painted a bleak picture, emphasizing that the solutions were social rather than technical, and called for privatization or exclusion and for rigorous and even coercive regulation of human population.(2) Recently, he reaffirmed this position.(3)

This article looks at both the positive and negative management of common resources and the legal and ecological progress that has been made since Hardin’s original article was written. (See the box on this page for a summary of his groundbreaking work.)

Birth of a Discipline

Hardin’s original paper was widely cited and stimulated many examples showing that increasing populations did lead to overexploitation, habitat degradation, and species extinctions.(4) Even those ecologists who found Hardin’s reliance on coercion distasteful emphasized the consequences of the imbalance between population and resources.(5) Hardin’s paper also stimulated many social scientists to alter their perspectives in relation to commons issues, with the result that many examples of both successful and unsuccessful maintenance of common resources have now been published.

The concept of commons is a useful model for understanding environmental management and sustainability. While Hardin believed that rain was inevitable without coercive population control – an option at odds with our cherished democratic beliefs – recent works by a range of interdisciplinary scientists have identified systems and institutions that do not inevitably lead to overexploitation but that in some cases result in the sustainable use of selected resources, at least on local scales.(6)

While 30 years of research has shown that Hardin’s initial thesis emphasizing inevitability and ruin was perhaps too bleak on the local scale, it has been enormously helpful in generating thought-provoking analyses across a wide range of disciplines. His work was widely cited, first by natural scientists and later by social scientists, yet unlike most scientific papers the rate of citation is increasing even 30 years later [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Perhaps its most useful role has been in illustrating the importance of integrating social and political theory with biological data. The traditional theory regarding resource users as unbridled appropriators is being replaced by the recognition that users can communicate and cooperate when it is in their interest to do so and when the resources at their disposal and the sociopolitical context permits it.(7)

What are Commons and Common-Pool Resources?

Common-pool resources (sometimes designated “common property”) such as land, fish, and water can be identified and quantified, while the commons is a broader concept that includes the context in which common-pool resources exist and the property system embracing them. Indeed, the switch from discussing the commons to analyzing common-pool resources and property rights illustrates the disagreement many biological and social scientists have with Hardin’s original thesis.

In the broad sense, a commons includes the resources held in common by a group of people, all of whom have access and who derive benefit with increasing access. Access may be equal or unequal, and control may be democratic or not. There is some disagreement as to what constitutes a common-pool resource. The term is often restricted to land, grass, wildlife, fish, forests, and water. The concept can also be applied to non-natural resources such as national treasuries, medical care, and the Internet,(8) but the focus of this article will be on the more traditional commons issues of fisheries, recreational areas, public land, and air quality (although atmosphere has been a highly disputed commons with unique qualities to be discussed later). Once these resources could be held in common by small tribes or villages, communities that could limit both access to the resources and the amount extracted. Limitation often involved aggression against would-be usurpers.

In many places, this system still exists. In the dry desert lands of northern Namibia and southern Angola, tribal councils control large blocks of land and tribe members are free to build their houses and farm wherever they choose. The councils can mediate disputes, limit intruders, and impose sanctions. While the primary resource held in common is land for farming and grazing, another very important resource in these arid lands is water for people and livestock. Thus, even where overall population density is low, land is not equally desirable and people congregate near the rivers and marshes, potentially leading to overexploitation of these lands and depletion and fouling of water.

Categories of Commons and Property Rights

Current reexamination of the applicability of common-pool resource management is fitting because the use of many resources has become truly globalized, requiting new and more global solutions. International attention has now focused on various aspects of sustainability. Global economies, multinational corporations, international trade agreements, and international commissions have created an institutional framework in which resource sustainability is one prevailing theme among a virtual cacophony of others.(9) As Elinor Ostrom, professor of political theory and policy analysis at Indiana University, points out, it is unclear whether existing international cooperative efforts are adequate to protect essential resources.(10) Rates of population growth and resource consumption vary among regions. The gap in who has access to resources is not narrowing, and there is rapid emergence of new technologies that allow even more efficient exploitation of resources. At the same time, improved communication has heightened expectations of a higher standard of living, even in remote regions of developing nations. The rate of these changes is also accelerating.

The following examples of commons challenges are drawn from fisheries, public land use, and air quality. Each of these represent similar themes but different scales and solutions. Ostrom identifies four properties of these resources that facilitate cooperative management: the resource has not already been depleted beyond hope of recovery; there are reliable indicators of resource condition; the resource is sufficiently predictable; and the distribution of the resource is sufficiently localized to be studied and controlled by the political entity.

There are also four general categories of property rights: open or uncontrolled access, communal, state, and private(11) (see Table 1 on page 9). Access refers to who controls access or who has access to the resources under what conditions or for what time period (while subtractability refers to the ability of one user to subtract from the welfare of the others).(12) These categories are not discrete but intergrade, and some common-pool resources can be managed under more than one category.(13) For some fisheries, such as shellfish, the government enforces regulations on seasons, size limits, and overall take, but the local shell-fishermen may claim traditional rights or ownership of particular clam beds that they seed with young shellfish, waiting for them to mature to a marketable size. Infringement of these beds can often lead to violence, as has happened in Maine when interlopers tried to fish for lobster in a territory claimed by someone else.(14)

Different modes of property rights may compete – for example federal versus local government or privatization versus community control. Even where a community or state maintains ownership, restricted access for exploitation of certain resources may be granted by concession. There may be a dissociation between resources: One may own land and trees privately whereas wildlife is communal property, or individuals may own rights to certain trees on communal land.

Basically, there is the question of how access can be controlled or managed, and who wins and who loses. Access can be managed by agreed-upon rights and rules, which are uniformly adhered to or enforced.(15) For example, in a small fishing community without outsiders, fishermen can agree to fish only in certain zones or only at certain times, catching a prescribed amount of fish. As long as everyone follows the rules, and the community governs wisely, the fishermen’s extraction would not exceed the carrying capacity or regeneration rate of the fish stocks, the resource would not be depleted, and the situation would be considered sustainable. The failure of someone to follow the agreed-upon rules necessitates sanctions, which must also be agreed upon by the users or commoners.

One difficulty in protecting common-pool resources is that there is often an incongruence between the distribution of the resource and property regimes. Fisheries provide many examples of such disparities; many commercial fish are migratory, making property rights, even those as broad as the 200-mile exclusive economic zones, effective for only part of the year.


Local to Global: The Commons Comes of Age

The greatest changes that have come about since Hardin proposed the tragedy of the commons have been an increase in human populations worldwide, shrinking resources, and the globalization of economies. The focus on commons management as a discrete area of social and economic challenge overlaps broadly with the focus on sustainability of resources. Indeed, those concerned with the sustainability of resources should examine whether a commons represents an appropriate avenue for developing sustainable management, and if so, at what spatial scale.

Temporal scales are important as well, for there are intergenerational aspects that need consideration.(16) The wise or unwise use of resources today directly affects the health and well-being of the next generation. We are borrowing from the next generation at a time when our resources are not only decreasing but population, and thus resource needs, is increasing.

Understanding the use of common-pool resources has been greatly enhanced by two developments: a new economic theory of cooperation that suggests cooperation could lead to the wise and sustained use of common-pool resources; and very detailed empirical work on commons issues that were well founded in theory.(17) Both were essential for the field to move forward. The traditional model of examining commons assumed that each person acted only in his or her own immediate best interest. More recently, economic theory suggests that by cooperating with others (even if there is an initial cost), common users can not only protect the resource but keep it sustainable as well. By examining case studies, researchers found that cooperation can lead to sustainable use and economic viability at least on small regional and short temporal scales.

There are many examples of both failed and successful attempts to manage common resources on local levels. Bonnie McCay, professor of human ecology at Rutgers University, and Fikret Berkes, professor at the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba, have been instrumental in providing examples where fishermen, hunters, and foresters have established norms, rules, and institutions to successfully extract resources without overexploitation.(18) They argue persuasively that although the tragedy of the commons has been accorded the status of a scientific law, much more detailed study of common-property resource management is needed. There are good examples of self-regulation, including Maine lobstermen and New Jersey fisherman who maintain yields and thus stable or even raise prices.

Three major categories of environmental problems that are useful in understanding methods of dealing with common-pool resources are fisheries, public lands, and air pollution. They are interesting because they illustrate the two main abuses of the commons: resource depletion and capacity depletion (due to pollution). Fish are a traditional, depletable common-pool resource, public land can fall under either category, and air pollution is a more global issue that affects the world at large. Traditional approaches to air pollution are being complemented by viewing the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb pollutants as a commons issue. Although at first air seems markedly different from renewable resources such as fish, firewood, and lumber, viewing the atmosphere in terms of limited capacity means that everyone who introduces pollutants, even though he or she does not consume air, subtracts from its use by others.

Fisheries and Water-Related Issues

Fisheries offer classic examples of commons issues that can be local (a stream or lake), regional (North Atlantic), or global, depending upon the fishery. Fisheries also provide examples of the best and worst management schemes concerning common resources. They are instructive because there are examples of local and institutional control that have effectively protected a resource and a livelihood in a sustainable manner, as well as examples of massive overexploitation that threaten not only the commercial but the biological viability of some species.(19)

Although the major fisheries challenges involve oceanic species and a system of uncontrolled, open access on the high seas, shrimp farming along the tropical coastlines is one important example of a land-margin commons issue where a combination of private, state, and communal property rights prevail. Increasing market demand for shrimp provides an incentive for the conversion of otherwise valuable mangrove habitats – where many fish species spawn – to shrimp farms, often at the expense rather than enrichment of fishing communities. The shrimp farms are often owned by corporations with the capital for transforming the habitat rather than being managed by local cooperatives. These farms are economically viable for only a few years, after which they are often abandoned.

In the United States, inshore marine resources are managed by state governments as a trust for all citizens. However, even within this government-regulated system fishermen can cooperate locally to preserve a common-pool resource. Lobster, for example, are a common-pool resource that can be easily overexploited if everyone has a right to harvest and if there are no limits on the number of lobster each fisherman takes. Additionally, if fishermen can come in from outside the region the problem increases. In Maine, the state government does not limit the number of licenses, but the lobstermen practice exclusion through a system of traditional fishing rights. Acceptance into the lobster fishing community is essential before someone can fish, and thereafter one can extract lobsters only in the territory held by that community. The end result has been a sustainable harvest and higher catches of larger, commercially valuable lobsters by fishermen in the exclusion communities.(20)

McCay and colleagues have also shown that in a trawl fishery in the New York Bight, the fishermen belong to a cooperative that has maintained relatively high prices and sustainability by limiting entry into the local fishery and establishing catch quotas among members. In this case, self-regulation is both flexible and effective.(21) The trawl fishery illustrates another critical point about commons resources: It is not only important to have sufficient fish to catch and fish populations that are stable but the price must be maintained or the industry will not be viable for the users.

In both of these examples, success has been achieved by local management of a local fishery. The fishermen were effective in excluding outsiders and in limiting the fishing rights of insiders so that fish stocks were sustainable, prices were maintained, and the fishery was viable. Management of fisheries on a regional or global scale is far more problematic because of the difficulty of exclusion or of monitoring catches.

At the opposite end of the spatial spectrum are cases where fisheries management has been ineffective, with declines in the fish stocks so serious that both the fishery and the fish are threatened with extinction.(22) Many of the examples where fish stocks have declined precipitously involve marine fish with wide geographical ranges. Swordfish and bluefin tuna are classic illustrations of Hardin’s thesis. They are a common-pool resource that have suffered overexploitation because of the difficulty of exclusion and the pressure from fishermen of many countries who, stimulated by high market value, push for the maximum catch possible.

Carl Safina, conservation writer and director of the Living Oceans Program of the National Audubon Society, has highlighted the plight of bluefin tuna, one of the largest, fastest, and most wide-ranging fish in the ocean.(23) Its west Atlantic breeding population has declined by 90 percent since 1975 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].(24) The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, responsible for stewardship of these tuna, is made up of members from 20 countries, many of whom are major tuna users. Although the commission’s scientific advisory committees repeatedly presented them with data showing drastic declines, the commission continued to allow catches that exceeded the maximum sustainable yield. In this case, the problem has multiple facets: Some countries that catch tuna are not members of the commission and are thus not regulated; some countries that belong to the commission fish under flags from noncommission countries so they elude the regulations; the fishery is pelagic and global, making enforcement of regulation difficult if not impossible; and last-ditch efforts to place the species on Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) lists, which would limit fishing, have so far failed due to pressure from user nations. Even aggressive efforts by the conservation community have been unable to prevent the continued destruction of bluefin tuna.

On a national scale, the United States successfully excluded foreign fishing fleets from its exclusive economic zone and dominated these waters. Even where outsiders have been excluded, however, the commons problem remains because without institutional controls, insiders are free to exploit resources. As Safina pointed out, excluding outsiders did not prevent U.S. fishermen from overexploiting fish resources despite the establishment of agencies and commissions nominally charged with protecting these resources. The problem partly lies with the membership on such commissions; many members represent fishermen who want to get their share (or more) rather than people who are charged with protecting the fish stocks regardless of the economic pressures.

Although successful management of common-pool resources for sustainability is desirable, there are other approaches that do not incorporate sustainability. Some marine fisheries exemplify an alternative approach involving overcapitalization of fleets, rapid sequential elimination of one common-pool fishery resource after another, and shifting to new resources.(25) This allows the industry to perpetuate itself in the short term with little attention to sustainability of a specific resource. When local resources are exhausted, fishermen must exploit more distant sources or sell their fleets and make other investments.

Moreover, understanding of traditional common-pool resources in fisheries has been expanded to include other coastal resources. Two examples illustrate this point: the serious reduction in horseshoe crabs and shorebirds; and personal watercraft users versus fishermen and other water users.

Horseshoe Crabs and Shorebirds

Since 1990, a directed fishery for horseshoe crabs has developed along the East Coast of North America to fulfill the demand for bait for eels, conch, and other fish. This has led to overexploitation and the reduction in the number of horseshoe crabs spawning in many regions. While this problem may once have been considered a fisheries issue only, it is compounded by the fact that several species of migratory shorebirds are threatened by the massive reduction in horseshoe crab eggs, their major food source on Delaware Bay and other stopover places during their northward migration.(26) Although the animals themselves are transitory, the phenomenon occurs annually and predictably on the same beaches.

Apart from the fishermen, several local communities depend on the tourist income generated by the attraction of huge concentrations of migratory shorebirds and breeding horseshoe crabs. Having large populations of both species available for viewing is a commons resource. The fishermen’s direct extraction of crabs and the indirect extraction of birds reduces the resource attractive to the tourists, decreasing their pleasure and ultimately their visits. Although less conspicuous from an ecotourism viewpoint, other species, such as green sea turtles, also depend on horseshoe crabs for food, while a medical industry relies on horseshoe crabs for the production of an important laboratory reagent. Thus, a traditional commons fisheries problem has now emerged as a multispecies conservation problem involving other vertebrates as well as economic issues that affect not only the conservation community but fishing, industry, and tourism. A further complication is that the demand for the eels (for which ground up female horseshoe crab is the only bait) emanates from around the globe. Japan, having depleted its own eel populations and those of nearby Asian countries, now offers extremely high prices for American eels, rendering both eel trapping and horseshoe crabbing economically lucrative. Rapid extraction and rapid financial remuneration is the apparent priority rather than sustainability of the resource. While the Atlantic Coastal Marine Fisheries Commission is responsible for maintaining sustainable horseshoe crab populations, the protection of the shorebirds falls under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has a conflicting prerogative.

Personal Watercraft versus Fishermen

Recreational use of public land and waterways, one of the commons resources that Hardin mentioned in his classic paper, has received little attention or rigorous analysis. In this example, the massive increase in the use of personal watercraft (often called “jet skis”) threatens a number of common-pool resources: the safe nesting of estuarine birds and other animals, the quality of aquatic vegetation so essential to the production of fish and shellfish, the peace and quiet of residents in shore communities, the physical safety of others using aquatic environments, and the undisturbed fishing of both recreational and commercial fishermen.(27) Fast, noisy, and numerous, these craft speed through habitats inaccessible to boats and are not yet regulated in most areas. However, the U.S. National Park Service is in the process of restricting or eliminating their use.

In many estuaries, commercial fishermen are already reporting decreases in catch because of the physical disturbance caused by personal watercraft, while other users report a serious reduction in aesthetic values such as “peace and quiet.” This problem is not limited to coastal environments but threatens inland waterways as well. At issue is the freedom of personal watercraft users to take over aquatic environments where their open access subtracts ecological, aesthetic, and commercial benefits long sought by others.(28) Regulation of their use is in its infancy. Ultimately it may be the fatalities they cause, rather than aesthetic or economic impacts on the commons, that leads to further regulation and exclusion.

Public Land

One commons resource currently under discussion in the United States is the huge tracts of public land used for nuclear weapons production by the U.S. Department of Energy during the Cold War.(29) These are now being considered for transfer back to regional, local, or even private ownership, with the inherent problems of determining access and subtractability. For 50 years the federal government excluded all other users from these lands, which in the future could become commons for recreational, industrial, or agricultural use. Which option will be chosen remains undetermined and is likely to vary from site to site.

The Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina is a good example. The site is composed of 800 square kilometers of land alongside the river. It includes habitat for a number of endangered species, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, the wood stork, and the bald eagle, as well as some of the only remaining pristine Carolina Bay habitats. It also offers excellent hunting, fishing, and forestry opportunities. Only a small portion of the area contains industrial facilities and converting these to alternative industrial applications could be accomplished without detracting from the recreational and other uses of the site. Deciding how these lands will be used is a commons issue because the use by one group of people (expanded industrial development, agriculture, or forestry) could detract from the use of others. There are many users with conflicting ideas and stakes in how these public lands should be used, and the question of winners and losers is not only one of human values but of ecological values as well.

Air Quality as a Common-Pool Concern

Traditional approaches to the commons have usually not dealt with air quality or air pollution. Although the atmosphere is a common-pool resource, it is in its use for waste disposal – where unequal access is very difficult to control – that the resource suffers degradation. Studies of global atmospheric transport reveal that air pollutants travel around the globe, to be deposited thousands of miles away from the source. (See “Atmosphere as a Global Commons” in the March 1998 issue of Environment for more on transboundary air pollution problems.)

Air pollution from power plants has long been of concern to downwind receptors. While the downwind states and provinces in northeastern North America were encouraging more stringent air pollution standards to control emissions of acid gases and toxic air pollutants, a serious countervailing force arose in the form of energy deregulation. By requiting states to allow the importation of electric power from any producer, the production of cheaper electricity from more polluting plants might actually be increased through demand from users within the downwind states (who will both provide the incentive for and suffer the consequences of increased energy production). Current legislation in the 12 states that have already deregulated electricity includes a variety of incentives for producers (both in-state and out-of-state) to reduce emissions, including disclosure portfolios that would allow consumers to know the emission characteristics of their vendors. In this example, there is no community of producers or consumers of electricity, but there is a clear community of users of air quality, who may have little prerogative for controlling the quality of their air. The states, which would normally be responsible for protecting their residents’ health, are clearly not sufficient, and even the regional or multistate consortiums that have formed may be inadequate to protect this common environment. Moreover, the prerogative of the responsible federal agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is in jeopardy unless the final deregulation legislation empowers that agency to improve air pollution standards nationwide (even if the lowered cost of electricity is compromised).

Common-Pool Resources and Conflict Resolution

Our understanding of both common-pool resources and the institutions governing their use comes from a number of case studies of resource management in a variety of cultures. Some of the most enlightening case studies deal with the use of public lands, fisheries, agriculture and irrigation systems, groundwater, and contamination of the air. Conflicts inevitably arise and are resolved differently under different property access systems. By examining what systems have worked as well as which ones have allowed or even accelerated resource depletion and habitat degradation, it is possible to begin to understand the rights, rules, and institutions that govern the wise and sustainable use of common-pool resources. This is the legacy of Hardin’s initial article, and the responsibility falls on a wide range of disciplines to accomplish it.

The management of common-pool resources is in various stages of development. Recreational and agricultural lands and forests remain as commons in some regions of the world but are privately or governmentally owned in others. Other common-pool resources, such as clean air and water, are clearly regional or global concerns requiring cooperation among widely dispersed people and governments. In many cases, existing national governments are not presently able to manage them effectively at the national, much less at the global, scale.

The oceans may be in transition from being nationally managed to being regionally or globally controlled, as reflected in the increasing reliance on international treaties to establish exclusive economic zones and international commissions to set quotas, close certain fisheries, and maintain catch statistics. Likewise, there are attempts through international conventions to protect major regional airsheds and even the global atmosphere and ultimately global climate. The Montreal protocol offers an example of a partially successful attempt to retard ozone depletion on a global scale by limiting the use of chlorofluorocarbons.

Social Policy Meets Ecology

Our understanding of common-pool resources is entering a new era of more global influence over resource use and pollution abatement coupled with local institutions managing the resources within their own domains. Ostrom argues that international treaty practices are in a position to take commons management actions on a global scale. But this will require hard decisions and long-term considerations on the part of user nations. Such decisions are often difficult to make in light of short-term domestic economic constraints influenced by the multinational nature of corporations wielding power and the potential for blackmail by user nations.(30)

The United Nations is the logical forum for developing commons approaches, but its potential is yet to be realized and it seems to be dismissed or ignored in most discussions. Nonetheless, under its aegis a number of attempts are being made. These include the Kyoto protocol on climate change and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, which together call for at least a 50 percent reduction in metal emissions and cover basic obligations, cooperative research, reporting, monitoring, compliance, and dispute resolution.(31)

It has become increasingly clear that there are great differences among individuals’ access and use of resources, both locally and globally. We will not find one set of rights, rules, and regulations that will fit all common-pool resources. It is also apparent that the social institutions of an ethnically homogeneous, interrelated tribe cooperatively managing a local fishery or plot of land are not a complete model for cooperation among diverse nations managing a global resource.

Social scientists have established a framework for evaluating characteristics of the user. Commons management is more likely to succeed when the users depend on the resource and share a common understanding of it; when there are grounds for trust; when the users can form an autonomous controlling body; and when they have prior experience with successful management.(32)

Increasing our understanding of how to make the Earth sustainable will require more detailed knowledge about the biology of resources, the social and cultural systems that depend upon these resources, and the economic pressures that govern them. Discussions of sustainability must be based on an understanding of common-pool resource management. The reliance of Western civilization on technological solutions will not solve many of the issues raised by common-pool resources.(33) This is particularly true given the globalization of resource extraction, where the parties that benefit and those that incur the costs are separated geographically and economically and where the benefits are derived by one generation but the costs are incurred by future generations.


Hardin’s thesis was seminal in defining the problem of the management of commons and common-pool resources. It met with immediate support by many resource managers who noted that a variety of species had declined dramatically because of overexploitation. Thereafter, social scientists began to note exceptions to his tragedy scenarios, arguing that his thesis was oversimplified and providing examples where institutions allowed people to manage resources sustainably.

Theoretical and empirical studies of common-pool resources have centered on two areas: depletable resources (such as fish, trees, and grasslands) and the depletable waste capacity of resources (such as air and water). While concepts of the commons are equally applicable to both types and remarkable headway has been made in the study of depletable resources, understanding the use of air and water as waste sinks still lags behind. This difference may reflect the more global nature of air and water resources, where the benefits are accrued in one place and the costs are borne by users many thousands of miles away.

The major research thrusts for the future will be in understanding the management of common-pool resources on different temporal and spatial scales, with a view to applying the lessons learned and expanding their applicability. Many of the examples of wise management of common-pool resources involve local resources managed by small, relatively homogeneous communities. There are regional cases, however, where common-pool resources have been managed effectively, such as the successful recovery of striped bass along the Atlantic Coast, which required a combination of governmental intervention and user cooperation. The management of global commons resources, particularly fisheries, forests, and wildlife has received considerable attention over the last 10 years and will be an important global issue for many years to come. Although we are making some headway with international treaties to manage global resources (the Montreal protocol and CITES are good examples), other attempts have been disastrous (for example, bluefin tuna). Yet institutions must be developed to deal with these resources or the species are doomed, along with their fisheries.

The difficulty of managing global resources is partly one of attempting to create global treaties and other institutions where there is no global government and few global sanctions. Privatization or long-term governmental stewardship offer alternatives to communal management at the local and regional level, but international conservation will require cooperation across nations where principles of the commons can be invoked to take advantage of common self-interest in protecting a resource. The management of common-pool resources seems to function best where there are sanctions that everyone agrees to and that can be enforced and where the benefits of management are widely recognized.

The authors would like to thank several people for comments on the manuscript, including C. Safina, B. McCay, C. Powers, and B. Goldstein. Alana Darnell extracted data from citation abstracts and Robert Ramos prepared the illustrations. Some of the research discussed herein was funded by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Trust for Public Lands, the Department of Energy (cooperative agreement with the Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation, DE-FC01-95EW55084) and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (ES05022).


1. G. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 13 December 1968, 1,243-48.

2. Ibid.

3. G. Hardin, “Extensions of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’,” Science, 1 May 1998, 682-83.

4. P. Ehrlich and J. P. Holdren, “Impact of Population Growth,” Science, March 1971, 1,212-17.

5. B. Commoner, The Closing Circle (New York: A. Knopf, 1971); and G. C. Daily and P. R. Ehrlich, “Population, Sustainability, and Earth’s Carrying Capacity,” BioScience 42 (1992): 761-71.

6. D. Feeny, F. Berkes, B. J. McCay, and J. M. Acheson, “The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later,” Human Ecology 18 (1990): 1-19; and F. Berkes, ed., Common Property Resources: Ecology and Community-based Sustainable Development (London: Belhaven Press, 1989).

7. E. Ostrom, “Self-Governance of Common-Pool Resources,” in P. Newman, ed., The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law (London: MacMillan, in press).

8. C. Hess, “Untangling the Web: The Internet as a Commons” (unpublished manuscript presented at the workshop Reinventing the Commons, Transnational Institute, Bonn, Germany, 4-5 November 1995).

9. M. McGinnis and E. Ostrom, “Design Principles for Local and Global Commons,” in O. R. Young et al., eds., International Political Economy and International Institutions 11 (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar Publications, 1996).

10. Ostrom, note 7 above.

11. S. Hanna and M. Monasinghe, eds., Property Rights and the Environment: Social and Ecological Issues (Washington, D.C.: The Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics and the World Bank, 1995); and National Research Council, Proceedings of the Conference on Common Property Resource Management (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1986).

12. F. Berkes, D. Feeny, B. J. McCay, and J. M. Acheson, “The Benefits of the Commons,” Nature, July 1989, 91-93.

13. Feeny et al., note 6 above.

14. J. M. Acheson, The Lobster Gangs of Maine (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1988).

15. E. Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

16. R. B. Norgaard, “Intergenerational Commons, Globalization, Economism, and Unsustainable Development,” Advances in Human Ecology 4 (1995): 141-71.

17. Ostrom, note 7 above.

18. B. J. McCay, “Muddling through the Clam Beds: Cooperative Management of New Jersey’s Hard Clam Spawner Sanctuaries,” Journal of Shellfish Research 7 (1988): 327-40; and B. J. McCay and J. M Acheson, eds., The Question of the Commons: The Culture and Ecology of Communal Resources (Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1987).

19. C. Safina, Song for the Blue Ocean (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).

20. Ostrom, note 15 above.

21. Norgaard, note 16 above.

22. C. Safina, “Where Have All the Fishes Gone?,” Issues in Science and Technology 10 (1994): 37-43.

23. C. Safina, “Bluefin Tuna in the West Atlantic: Negligent Management and the Making of an Endangered Species,” Conservation Biology 7 (1993): 229-34.

24. International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, Report of the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics (Genoa, Italy, 1996).

25. Safina, note 19 above.

26. J. Burger, A Naturalist along the Jersey Shore (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996).

27. J. Burger, “Effects of Motorboats and Personal Watercraft on Flight Behavior over a Colony of Common Terns,” Condor 105 (1998): 528-34.

28. J. Burger, “Attitudes about Recreation, Environmental Problems, and Estuarine Health along the New Jersey Shore, U.S. A,” Environmental Management 22 (1998): 889-96.

29. Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management, Report of the

Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congress, 1997); Department of Energy, Charting the Course: the Future Use Report, DOE/EM-0283 (Washington, D.C., 1996); and J. Burger, J. Sanchez, J. W. Gibbons, and M. Gochfeld, “Risk Perception, Federal Spending, and the Savannah River Site: Attitudes of Hunters and Fishermen,” Risk Analysis 17 (1997): 313-20.

30. Safina, note 22 above.

31. H. E. Ott, “The Kyoto Protocol: Unfinished Business,” Environment, July/August 1998, 17; Economic and Social Council, “Convention on the Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution of Heavy Metals” (Aarhus, Denmark: United Nations, 1998).

32. Ostrom, note 7 above.

33. Hardin, note 1 above.


Hardin based his thesis of the tragedy of the commons on earlier studies written during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus wrote that human population could grow exponentially, unmatched by resource growth.(1) Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution predicted that the characteristics of people who produced more children than others would increase over time. These observations are even more true today given medical care and social systems to protect the children of those who cannot support them. For most of human history, the world seemed like an infinite space with unlimited resources (forests, oceans, wildlife) available for the taking because in nearly every part of the globe there were sufficient resources for the existing, low-density populations. In the past century, however, human population has increased almost everywhere, demonstrating that demand can more than match even very abundant resources.(2)

In 1968, Hardin predicted that with increasing population the eventual fate of all common resources was overexploitation and degradation.(3) His credo, “Freedom in a Commons brings ruin to all,” became a universal cry. Others made the same point, although with less flare and consequently less effect. Hardin’s concerns focused people’s attention on the relationship between individual behavior and resource sustainability.(4) The underlying tenet of his thesis, however, was that populations were increasing beyond the ability of the Earth’s resources to support them at a sufficiently high standard of living.

Hardin used William Foster Lloyd’s example of herdsmen sharing village lands to graze cattle.(5) Each herdsman derives full benefit from each cow he adds to his herd, while the depletion of grass attributable to that cow is shared among all users. Thus, at each decision point, Hardin argued, each herdsman would choose to add a cow rather than maintain status quo. This leads to each herdsman increasing his herd without limit and to ultimate and inevitable ruin for all. Hardin made several assumptions, including that the world and its resources are finite, human populations will continue to increase, and every person will want to use an increasing share of the resources. Hardin’s solution was to have government controls to limit access to the commons or to privatize common-pool resources and, above all, to limit population, even through coercion. Recently Hardin has reaffirmed his predictions, noting that expanding cities must control traffic and parking, nations seek to limit air pollution, and the freedom of the seas is being constrained.(6)

1. T.R. Malthus, Population: The First Essay (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1959).

2. J. Cohen, How Many People Can the Earth Support? (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995).

3. G. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, 13 December 1968, 1,243-48.

4. G. Hardin and J. Baden, eds., Managing the Commons (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1977).

5. W. F. Lloyd, “Population,” “Value,” “Poor-laws,” and “Rent,” in Reprints of Economic Classics (New York: Kelley, 1968).

6. G. Hardin, “Extensions of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’,” Science, 1 May 1998, 682-83.

Joanna Burger is a distinguished research professor of biology at Rutgers University. Michael Gochfeld is clinical professor of environmental and community medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The authors can be reached at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, Piscataway, NJ 08854 (Burger’s telephone: (732) 445-4318, e-mail:; Gochfeld’s telephone: (732) 445-0123, ext. 627, e-mail:

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