In his essay entitled, “Tragedy of the Commons,” ecologist Garrett Hardin proposed that any common resource to be shared by the public free of charge would eventually be exploited and degraded. Hardin uses an example from northern Africa to illustrate his point as it applies to rangeland. Here, satellite photos revealed an area of privately-owned rangeland that was managed sustainably by the rotation of pastures for grazing. Because the owner had a vested interest in maintaining the quality of the rangeland, he managed it with the future in mind. However, the public land that lay adjacent to his property had been overgrazed past its carrying capacity. The soil was compacted and invading plants unfit for grazing had taken over. As a consequence, large numbers of grazing animals died off, followed by many humans who depended on them for sustenance (Hardin, 1968).
In their book, Natural Resource Conservation, Daniel Chiras and John Reganold also used this concept to explain the degradation of rangeland in the United States in the late 1800s. Many early American ranchers seemed oblivious to the fact that one healthy, well-fed steer could bring in as much cash as four diseased, under-fed ones that resulted from the overgrazing. In addition to the degradation of the soil itself, overgrazing is responsible for the loss of habitat for many wildlife species, and has been the catalyst for the decline and near extinction of many such species. Thanks to several acts of legislation in the 1900s, however, public rangelands in the United States are now in their best condition of the past 100 years (Chiras & Reganold, 2010).
Rangeland management is not the only environmental area where tragedy of the commons applies. It has also been a problem in the world’s open oceans. These areas make up the world’s largest commons, as they are under the governmental control of no country. Similar to the problems caused by overgrazing on rangelands, overfishing the world’s oceans results in depletion of marine species near the point of extinction. Such was the case with the Pacific sardine industry in the first half of the 20th century. At its peak in 1936 – 1937, the industry brought in about 660,000 metric tons. Severe overfishing of this resource resulted in the collapse of the industry, however, and by 1951 – less than 15 years later – commercial production bottomed out at about 72 metric tons (Chiras & Reganold, 2010).
The phenomenon coined as tragedy of the commons can also be seen in the deforestation of the world’s tropical forests. Slash-and-burn agriculture, logging, cattle ranching and biofuel farming have all resulted in unprecedented losses of our tropical forests world-wide. Like rangeland management, however, improvement has been shown when local people actually own the land, or at least the trees on the land. Especially in developing nations where the government may not be in a position to protect its forests, privatization may be the answer (Chiras & Reganold, 2010).
Unfortunately, legislative intervention may be the only effective means of minimizing the disasters of the commons, as human nature has proven time and again to be inadequate left ungoverned.
Chiras, D. D. & Reganold, J. P. (2010). Natural Resource Conservation (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Hardin, G. (1968). Tragedy of the commons. Retrieved November 19, 2009, from http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/TragedyoftheCommons.html