The Tragedy of the Commons

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First published in Science in December 1968. The thesis is that communities that share resources inevitably pave the way for their own destruction; instead of wealth for all, there is wealth for none. Unfortunately, this paper has been used as the basis for government policies regulating natural resources. Writing in Monthly Review, Ian Angus exposes it as the myth it is:
The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons
Will shared resources always be misused and overused? Is community ownership of land, forests, and fisheries a guaranteed road to ecological disaster? Is privatization the only way to protect the environment and end Third World poverty? Most economists and development planners will answer "yes" -- and for proof they will point to the most influential article ever written on those important questions.

Since its publication in Science in December 1968, "The Tragedy of the Commons" has been anthologized in at least 111 books, making it one of the most-reprinted articles ever to appear in any scientific journal. It is also one of the most-quoted: a recent Google search found "about 302,000" results for the phrase "tragedy of the commons."

For 40 years it has been, in the words of a World Bank Discussion Paper, "the dominant paradigm within which social scientists assess natural resource issues" (Bromley and Cernea 1989: 6). It has been used time and again to justify stealing indigenous peoples' lands, privatizing health care and other social services, giving corporations "tradable permits" to pollute the air and water, and much more.

Noted anthropologist Dr. G.N. Appell (1995: 34-5) writes that the article "has been embraced as a sacred text by scholars and professionals in the practice of designing futures for others and imposing their own economic and environmental rationality on other social systems of which they have incomplete understanding and knowledge."

Like most sacred texts, "The Tragedy of the Commons" is more often cited than read. As we will see, although its title sounds authoritative and scientific, it fell far short of science.

Garrett Hardin hatches a myth

The author of "The Tragedy of the Commons" was Garrett Hardin, a University of California professor who until then was best known as the author of a biology textbook that argued for "control of breeding" of "genetically defective" people (Hardin 1966: 707). In his 1968 essay he argued that communities that share resources inevitably pave the way for their own destruction; instead of wealth for all, there is wealth for none.
And the money quote:
Given the subsequent influence of Hardin's essay, it's shocking to realize that he provided no evidence at all to support his sweeping conclusions. He claimed that the "tragedy" was inevitable -- but he didn't show that it had happened even once.

Hardin simply ignored what actually happens in a real commons: self-regulation by the communities involved.
Sad and amazing that such an unproven essay got such wide influence and propagation. No critical thinking at all...

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This page contains a single entry by DaveH published on August 30, 2008 5:15 PM.

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