The Tragedy of the Commons

In 1969, Garret Hardin wrote a seminal paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” This allegory explains how the overuse of a shared resource can lead to ruin. The story goes like this.Imagine a small village in a valley nestled in the mountains. The center of the village is a common area where the farmers can graze a cow for their own benefit. Everybody gets a share of the wealth.

One farmer recognized that if he put more cows on the common, he would do better. But the more cows on the common, the less grass there is available for each cow. The farmer realized that with more cows on the common, each cow gets less, but if he has more cows, he gets a bigger portion of the shared resource.

Other farmers see the benefit of putting more cows on the green and so they add more cows. They all see that each cow added means less grass per cow, but also recognize that the more cows they own, the better off they are individually. This is the tragedy. Each farmer benefits individually by adding cows, but the expense of more cows on the green is born by all.

Unrestrained addition of cows will lead to overgrazing the common and its ultimate destruction.
The moral of the story is that shared resources can only be maintained if properly managed. The villagers must collectively agree on a limit to the number of cows each farmer can graze so that the common can continue to be productive.

A good example of successful management of a shared resource is the deer population in Arkansas.
Before serious management began in the 1930s, the population of white-tailed deer in Arkansas had plummeted to something like 500 deer statewide. Deer had been completely eliminated in a number of counties.

With careful resource management, that is, restrictions on hunting, the herd has recovered to about a million animals. Now, everybody gets to share the wealth, but only through collective action.
Now ,you may ask, why a column dedicated to energy matters consumes space discussing cows on the common. It’s an allegory.

Think of the burning of fossil fuels as cows and the atmosphere as the common that sustains it. Each year over 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide— cows as it were — are added to the atmosphere, aka the common. The majority of this is from the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. This excess carbon dioxide is acting as a blanket, trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the planet. Increasing amounts of carbon dioxide are also dissolving in the oceans causing them to become more acidic.

Our tragedy is each of us benefit individually from the increasing use of fossil fuels, but force the rest of the people on the planet to suffer degradation of the common. It is time to manage the global common, our atmosphere. The scientific community in essentially every country in the world is in agreement that we must restrain our release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and the major way that will occur is through reductions in the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.

Like it or not we need to exhibit restraint, it is the only way we can preserve our global common for future generations.

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