Tragedy of the Commons

The tragedy of the commons is often illustrated with the example of overgrazed public land. The cattle on this hillside in the Chase Lake Wetland Management District in North Dakota have overgrazed the pasture behind the fence; overgrazing has been prevented on the land in the foreground.

Photo credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Rick Bohn

First coined by Garrett Hardin in 1968, “tragedy of the commons” refers to a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting out of personal interest, freedom, and rationality in the pursuit of their self-interests will eventually ruin shared limited resources, even when it is clear that it is in nobody's interest for this to happen. Hardin's original paper gives the example of a common land where everyone has the right to graze their ...

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