05 The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ Revisited

Posted on May 28, 2008 by

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Aldo Matteucci
Senior Fellow, DiploFoundation

Garrett HARDIN[i] argues that where exceedingly numerous ‘rational and economic’ agents exploit a finite resource, only mutual coercion mutually agreed upon can stop the overexploitation of the ‘commons’. He states: “The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.”

HARDIN denies that ‘the invisible hand’ – individuals acting locally – can solve the problem, for the root of the tragedy of the commons lies in ‘situational ethics’. Individuals acting rationally to exploit a resource would have to change their behaviour to take into account the emerging scarcity. It is not in the individual interest to switch unless all (or a majority) does, hence the consequent destruction of the common resource.

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We find many natural instances akin to ‘situational ethics’ in both inanimate and animate nature. Sand can be shapeless dust, something like to a liquid, or a brick, depending on how close the grains are to each other. Phase transitions from gas to liquid to solids are again such instances – where the rules change rapidly. In all cases only local rules – light chemical bonds – apply.

Flocks of birds in flight, or fish as a school also show behaviour akin to ‘situational ethics’ when, coming together, they proceed to move in concert, elegantly, swiftly, as if ordered by an invisible hand, or an intelligent designer. Who has seen the starlings over the setting skies of Rome knows of the infinity variety and beauty of these designs. Computer simulations show that local rules (in birds e.g. simple rules about distance from the surrounding animals) allow the emergence of the common flight patters at will. There is no need for ‘mutual coercion, mutually agreed’ at each and every move, rather infinite variations on the theme of local behavioural rules.

In the case of humanity, HARDIN’s conundrum is self-inflicted. He first creates a cardboard – one-dimensional – view of a human person, and then, predictably, blames him for being so. The fact is: humans are not ‘rational and selfish’ only, but have multiple set of behavioural rules – we call them identities – and they switch them off and on depending on the situation[ii]. A person in the bosom of his family will act differently than when he is in public, or in a crowd, or at the office. Nor is he situationally constrained in his behaviour: he is able (more or less) freely to override the situational ‘default’ identity and innovate. If he finds that the new rules works, or works better, he’ll adopt it. Others will take it up, and the effect may spread across the population. Manias and panics spread that way, but also adaptive behaviour.

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It is said that for a state to collapse it only needs for good people to do nothing. True. One may just as well argue, however, that for a state to survive it only needs for a few good people to do the (new) right thing.

HARDIN’s solution – mutual coercion, mutually agreed by the majority – certainly is a valid solution. It is important to realise thst it is not the only solution, nor often the easiest and quickest one.

What it happening at the moment in ‘climate change’ is evidence of this insight. While the HARDIN solution – the UNFCCC process – is mired in controvery and essentially in the doldrums, adaptive behaviour based on local initiatives is spreading fast, at all levels. It does not always need a majority, just a few good examplary deeds, to lead the way.


[i] Garrett HARDIN (1968): “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Science, 162 (1968):1243-1248.

[ii] For a good survey of the subject see Amartya SEN (2006): Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny. Allan Lane. London; xx + 215 pp.
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