Not the Tragedy of the Common

By Diamay Klem Balacuit | May 20, 2021

The tragedy of the Commons, a well-known article written by an American ecologist Garret Hardin in 1968, ignited a lot of minds on the reality of resource consumption. It became a “reminder” of how humans consume shared resources.

Nowadays it is used as a concept. It tells about a scenario where the shared environmental resources are abused and exploited, eventually creating a threat to everyone involved. Hardin likened it to sheep grazing in common land. Surmising that if every herdsman would acquire sheep without limit and let them graze the limited land resources, Hardin revealed a potential problem: depressing resources. 

A misconception

The word “commons” refers to open-access resources which a community can use for their needs. The exploitation of the commons has become the central core of Hardin’s argument, where he suggested that some sort of regulation can resolve the problem through state control and privatization.

The call of Hardin has led the social scientists, anthropologists, and professionals to dig deeper into the issue he raised. Along the way, academics realized a key flaw in Hardin’s argument. Hardin’s perspective was limited. The state intervention and privatization that Hardin suggested, instead of helping, worsens the situation.

Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom suggested that regulations for the commons had already been placed, unlike Hardin’s depiction. In a study conducted by Ostrom and her colleagues, they were able to identify a set of principles for sustainable management of resources. One example of that is having collective decisions by the locals to create sanctions and limitations to their usage of resources. One of the most essential in this set of principles is that users know or have their own way of setting their own rules. Economist Partha Dasgupta also suggested similarly. He added that “States may lack the information acquired by local users over thousands of years. Sending a bunch of bureaucrats to look at the problem was often not very useful.”

A classic example of the regulations for the commons is the customary laws created by the indigenous people for their communities. There, maximizing the use of the shared resources is guided by the regulations and sanctions the people have made. In a way, it was their autonomy that helped them not to exploit the resources, protect the environment they are living in.

From the Grassroots

According to the work of Ostrom, there are about 50 national governments that started to decentralize the control of forests, water, and other resources. These governments gave control of shared resources to the communities living in those areas. 

Giving autonomy to the locals in maximizing the commons while also not hindering their collective effort brings more consciousness to the state of the environment. This has been proven not just by the work of Ostrom, but also by the works of many professionals from other fields.

Ostrom believed that the tragedy of the commons only occurs when these established communities are disturbed by the external groups which exert power for their gain. Addressing the issue of resource consumption can only be successful when a bottom-top approach is used—involving the individuals and communities and not just the government, in contrast to what is proposed by Hardin.

Environmental Conservation

True conservation of shared resources comes when the people involved in the community, the direct users, have the opportunity to take control—maximizing it according to their needs. It is not the core of Hardin’s article as it tends to promote the privatization and regulation of shared resources—giving access to the personal interests of the individuals who would want to impose control.

Conservation comes when the collective whole takes responsibility for consuming the shared resources. It is where the people are conscious to take action on addressing the said issue. It is where the commons are protected by the community itself.


Angus, I. (2008, August 25). The Myth of the Tragedy of the Commons. Climate and Capitalism. Retrieved from: https://climateandcapitalism.com/2008/08/25/debunking-the-tragedy-of-the-commons/

Battersby, S. (2017, January 3). News Feature: Can humankind escape the tragedy of the commons? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from: https://www.pnas.org/content/114/1/7

CGIAR Water, Land, and Ecosystems (n.d). 

Elinor Ostrom- the “non-tragedy of the commons. CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. Retrieved from: https://wle.cgiar.org/news/elinor-ostrom-%E2%80%9Cnon-tragedy-commons%E2%80%9D

About theweeklysillimanian (1996 Articles)
Official student news publication of Silliman University.

1 Comment on Not the Tragedy of the Common

  1. This is an engaging piece. I would like to share also the other major themes Hardin put premium on his work.

    1. In Hardin’s reference, there must be mutual coercion that I shall call a compromise—meeting at the middle.
    While we encourage a sense of participation, people should at least have a uniform understanding of this compromise. This where education comes in. Hardin sees education as the one which could counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong things.

    2. Hardin also wished to shun technical solutions and center on fundamental morality extension. Again, this is where education comes in.

    But I definitely agree that Hardin’s proposition is inconsistent.

    To this end, I hope the people, through the pandemic, are compelled to heal our fractured relationship with the environment, our planet Earth, and our home.

    Good job, Klem. Keep writing.

    sir josh

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