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the tragedy of the commons

a briefing document

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Introdution - socialism & sociology

The tragedy of the commons is part of a series of briefing documents on housing and making living systems ecological.
This grouping is contained within a set of documents on global concerns at
population tragedy of the commons land conservation and food production On housing and making living systems ecological
sustainable manufacture GDP and other quality of life measurements ecologically collapsing and retrenching civilisations: written sources global warming briefing documents
pressure on water resources power, ownership and freedom energy briefing documents

What is the Tragedy of the Commons?

This technical term comes from days gone past when all villagers held a piece of land in ‘common’, each villager was able to put as many animals to graze upon it as they wished. For any individual, the situation was clear:

“If I put one more animal on the common, I would improve my lot”.

Trouble arose when every villager acted upon that calculation, with the end result that the common became over-grazed, the animals were weak through malnourishment and the common land became threadbare.
The situation remained however for any individual: another animal was a bonus.

Thus individual advantage was inevitably accompanied by village poverty.

Span and time in the tragedy of the commons
legislating for a global commons—poverty, carbon and fossil fuel rationing
cap and trade - pollution credits
some history and micro-issues
Some background reading - biblioigraphy


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It has long been known that the average person can handle friendships with up to about twelve people and acquaintanceships with up to two hundred people. I would speculate that these numbers approximate evolutionary experience with kin and with tribe. Hardin [1] , who made the Tragedy of the Commons a life study, came to the conclusion that in order to stop related problems, there were three main requirements:

  1. ownership of resources;
  2. ability to back up decisions by sufficient sanctions;
  3. a number of responsible people, not exceeding 150;

These limitations on human social capacity are pervasive. For example, recently there have been attempts to link such reasoning to the analysis of terror cells.

Even in Hutterite communities, with above that number of members the freeloading problem is too great. For freeloading, read cheating, and cheating cannot be stopped unless the sanctions on the cheats are sufficiently heavy.

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span and time in the tragedy of the commons

It is not possible to stop tragedy of the commons problems without attending to both space and time. This I shall develop in the context of some examples.

  1. Fisheries are commons that are not owned in many cases and fish can also be inclined to wander.
  2. Oil reserves are being treated in a similar manner, with the added problem that there is no serious possibility of regeneration.
  3. Pollution spreads around the world, recognising no artificial barriers such as nation, or even ocean.
  4. Likewise, jihadi moonbats who kill and destroy without reference to a national base.

When the use of a commons, such as fisheries or oil reserves, extends beyond the users’ lifetimes, people with access often have little or no concern because the problems will not arrive in their lifetime. Thus they are content to ruin the commons because they do not have to pay for the result.

Oil and fisheries are two example commons in this situation. Their exploiters care little that future users will find the cupboard bare. At least the current users are able to become as rich as they can manage while stocks last.

It has to be decided what particular reality comprises a commons.

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cap and trade - pollution credits

Pollution credits are better called cap and trade. It is a market solution to a tragedy of the commons problem.

  1. The government puts a cap on a country’s emissions. (Eventually, this goes international on the basis of ‘negotiation’.)

  2. Within a country or treaty block, large polluters, at the very least, are granted part of that allocation.

  3. The right-to-pollute allocations are traded in a market.

  4. As a critical part of the process, the original cap is steadily reduced.

  5. What does this achieve? It means that those who can most easily (that is, most ‘cheaply’) reduce the filth they produce, will reduce their filth and then sell their rights to others who find it more difficult or expensive.

    Thus, producers of clean energy can sell allowances to polluters, or buy allocations and sell on at a profit. That gives incentives to produce clean energy.

  6. There will be at least some corruption, because governments are involved. Thus, large party contributors will lobby for larger allocations. This amounts to a large subsidy to the companies who are allocated the original pollution rights, which now become saleable in the market. Some countries will get more rights than is sane, and others will then play the system, pretending to agree but trying to ignore the allocated levels.

The system depends on strong cap levels and rigorous enforcement.

The end objective is to reduce the filth in the most efficient and least costly manner.

A major problem with the tragedy of the commons situation is that nobody owns the assets. When nobody owns assets, people tend to despoil those assets. (This is a major problem with socialism, and why there was such great pollution and inefficiency in the Russian socialist empire).

When burning fossil fuels, the asset is the air or, more precisely, that right to pollute the air. When nobody owns that right, everybody uses it as a rubbish dump. This is little different than a person who fly-tips their rubbish by the side of the road, or who dumps litter, rather than paying for the petrol to take their rubbish to the local dump or to expend the effort of carrying the litter to the nearest rubbish bin. This process is known as externalising costs. The process of saving your costs by dumping them on other people, such as leaving a road sweeper to clear up your litter can also be seen as a form of theft.

Cap and trade is an example of bringing the problem into an ownership situation, allocating ownership of those rights and making a market for trading those rights. With cap and trade, individuals own the right to pollute. Air is no longer a rubbish dump that anyone can use at will. [See also span and time in the tragedy of the commons.]

The whole planet, especially the Western world, is extremely dependent on fossil fuels.

The nature of evolution is that species tend to fill available space. That filling process is energy dependent for humans. For example, when people in Northern Europe learnt a few things about agriculture, in about 1000 A.D., they were able to introduce far more effective crop raising. This led to rapidly increasing populations. The fossil fuel age has had (and is having) similar effects.

If the fossil fuels were just stopped immediately. Billions would die - billions, not hundreds or even millions.

Therefore, the process of moving away from filthy fossil fuels will have to be managed, always assuming that humans are capable of doing this.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels, especially oil, means power, including military power. Five-sixths of the world still lives at dire levels of productivity, that is in poverty.

That five-sixths want what the other sixth has. This is a great deal of why the Middle East is troublesome. They are trying to trade oil for weapons, Western weapons, Western developed weapons, Western produced weapons. Hence the great costs we are presently enduring, acting to civilise the Middle East.

There is a saying: the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.

We are now in the oil age. If we have the slightest sense, we must manage our way out of the oil age as quickly and efficiently as we can without killing billions. That is not easy. If we stop using (very cheap) oil, others will use it and continue the filth problems. So we have to offer better alternatives, and gain cooperation. That is hard political, and scientific, work. It is the reason for systems like cap and trade.


legislating for a global commons—poverty, carbon and fossil fuel rationing

The notion of ownership is central to solving the problem of the tragedy of the commons. No-one owns the globe. Therefore, international commons problems fester until they cause resource wars, or environmental degradation. These problems can be termed as market failures.

What a person owns, they can trade. Consequently, allocating fossil fuel rations makes little sense if the owners of the rations may not trade their allocation.

Only through giving each person, or interest, a tradable ration can the various objectives of conservation, market efficiency with its freedom enhancement, and alleviation of poverty be achieved, without giving governments dangerous and untoward powers.

Thus fisheries are slowly moving to allocating limited catches among stakeholders, at levels where the fish can replace themselves. [2]

Only by assigning property rights to fossil fuels and carbon, on an international foundation, can the pollution and pressure on fossil fuels be resolved. Likewise, fisheries and other goods will be destroyed without appropriate spans of ownership, which include consideration of spawning grounds and migration routes.

This does not, and should not, encourage ambitions of world governments, but where planetary (or other large cross-border) commons problems exist, only international administrations can cope.

Freeloaders and Iraq

You will notice that the jihadi cult also has similar logic to a tragedy of the commons, in that the jihadis cause destruction more or less at random, whereas no country (the usual source of of law and public peace) takes responsibility.

When the USA and other concerned states do take responsibility, the caterwauling is orchestrated by those who can benefit from the activities of such cults. Perhaps those with old-power dreams of empire may try setting sides against one another for perceived advantage.

Allowing some primitive loon to use oil revenues to obtain powerful weapons, with which to take control of the resources developed by Western nations, is not acceptable if you desire a better and more advanced society.

Other such banding together to solve what are essentially tragedy of the commons problems may be thought to be campaigns against Barbary pirates, for the abolition of slavery, establishing ‘rules’ for just war, police and criminality problems, and even a social commons designed to stop the casting of litter.

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some history and micro-issues

State and private property are not the only ways of conserving common goods.

Hernando de Soto identifies lack of legal title in informal economies as a major reason for poverty in countries where capitalism exists without strong formal ‘laws’. The greatest problem with joining the formal legal system is predatory government, which attempts to steal ever more of the GDP. (Incidentally, these governments also force ever more of the country’s economy into a monetarised form which they can then control and tax).

Meanwhile, corporations attempt to buy governments and pressure them to introduce ‘laws’ (such as ridiculous recent extensions of copyright) which restrict competition, in order that the corporations may establish near monopolies and thus keep out rivals.

Fisheries that are only managed for the interests of current users are likely to be mined, in the manner of other reserves, by selfish/foolish people seeking only to maximise current profit.

‘Global stalemate’

“ There are two contending methods of dividing the carbon cake. The first proposes a "carbon aristocracy" of inherited natural resource wealth, in which the basis for talks is the greenhouse gas emissions, per person, that each country has today. The second, and a starting position for countries such as China, India and Brazil, is that the atmosphere is a global commons that we all need. So entitlements to emit, they argue, should be shared on a per capita basis.”

This is the oft-cited article by Hardin, written 35 years ago. It is interesting to see his prognostications for the uncontrollability of populations, and his darkly hinted, draconian ‘solutions’ (similar to those currently in effect in China). Yet 35 years on, Western populations are often on the wane. Hardin’s logic that those who restrict their fecundity are likely in due course to be out bred by those who don’t, and his secondary assumption that this will lead straight back into the original Malthusian dilemma, has yet to be empirically verified.

Ostrom has a modified version of Hardin’s rather fascistic view, thinking that people and communuities run their lives more by agreement.

‘In the end, building from the lessons of past successes will require forms of communication, information and trust that are broad and deep beyond precedent, but not beyond possibility’. [Ostrom, E., Burger, J., Field, C., Norgaard, R. and Policansky, D. (2003) 'Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges', Science, 9 April.]

Another development on a larger scale is described here. More discussion.

Western governments have constructed their welfare states in a manner allowing breeding and then freeloading on the state (i.e. other tax payers); this does seem to be the height of short-sighted foolishness. But this style of allocating and distributing benefits must hit the buffers eventually.

See also the section on Calhoun’s rats in feedback and crowding.

The Ostrom article cited above gives examples of local communities that have successfully managed limited resources over centuries. An alternative outcome is shown in an incredible and terrible catalogue of human depredation down the ages, to be found in A green history of the world by C. Ponting.

It is always important to look at successes, if one wishes to move forward. There is a ridiculous tendency in social sciences to concentrate on problems and to ignore successful examples. It is by learning from success that we move forward far more than the interminable cataloguing of failure.

The solutions catalogued by Ostrom are useful indicators of just why ‘democratic’ approaches are often much more effective in solving TOTC issues. Democracy is not just some desirable fluff, it also has practical advantages in saving us from some of the more difficult problems that we face. However, keep in mind that Ostrom’s examples are in limited geographical areas with few people involved, whereas Ponting’s examples are often large widespread systems.

The growing understanding of game theory, as indicated in the section on ‘your reputation’, also shows some of the ways humans come to co-operate. Group co-operation also improves individual survival. Those who imagine that nature is just some simplistic dog-eat-dog competition have a highly simplistic understanding of evolution. Those belonging to groups that co-operate are more likely to survive and leave descendants than those who merely attempt to go it alone. Competing groups tend to be a force selecting for co-operation, even though selection within groups selects for competition.

Humans are not simply trapped in some Hobbesian prisoner’s dilemma. The more complex reality gives much greater hope. It is also well to remember that over-pessimism can lead to resignation and inaction. Both pessimism and optimism can become self-fulfilling mind sets, this in its turn causes difficulties if the optimism extends into the other extremism of complacency.

your reputation—watching the behaviour of others
“Theoretical models suggest that altruism can survive in populations where individuals trust those they have seen co-operate with others, but give nothing to those they have seen behave selfishly.”
[Nature, 19.09.02]

Reputation helps solve the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’
here is a recent game theory test of co-operative behaviour under observation.

abelard’s game theory section (see Fehr’s interesting and useful site).

There is a section on the link between ethics, law and the Tragedy of the Commons in a section at the logic of ethics

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Some background reading - biblioigraphy

Related further documents
population GDP and other quality of life measurements
sustainable manufacture power, ownership and freedom
land conservation and food production energy briefing documents
ecologically collapsing and retrenching civilisations: written sources

End notes
  1. Garrett Hardin: 1915 – 2003
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