A General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons

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The author conducts a simple-seeming thought experiment inwhich he proves that any ethics is mistaken if it allows agrowing population steadily to increase its exploitation of theecosystem which supports it. Such an ethics is incoherent becauseit leads to the destruction of the biological resources on whichsurvival depends; it lets people act in ways that make allfurther ethical behavior impossible. The essay in which thisfundamental flaw in modern Western moral thinking is demonstratedis Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons"(1968).

The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin - The Garrett Hardin Society - Articles

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Hardin himself fully understood the difficulty of his task. Inthe preface of Exploring New Ethics for Survival (1972), hewrote, For too long have we supposed that technology would solvethe "population problem." It won't. I first becamefully aware of this hard truth when I wrote my essay "TheTragedy of the commons," ... Never have I found anything sodifficult to work into shape. I wrote at least sevensignificantly different versions before resting content with thisone, ... . It was obvious that the internal resistance to what Ifound myself saying was terrific. As a scientist I wanted to finda scientific solution; but reason inexorably led me to concludethat the population problem could not possibly be solved withoutrepudiating certain ethical beliefs and altering some of thepolitical and economic arrangements of contemporary society(Hardin, 1972, p. ix).

Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights …

Activists in environmental causes as well as professionals inethics have long applauded Hardin's essay. But then they goon to ignore its central thesis. They accept the environmentalgoals and then, acting as if the essay had never been written,recommend behavior which will cause the environmental commons tocollapse. Consequently Hardin's refutation of traditionalmoral thinking still seems to be not understood. And the needremains to give the tragedy of the commons a more generalstatement -- one which can clarify its revolutionary character,one which can convince a wide public of the correctness of itsmethod and principles.

David Bollier (USA) is an author, activist and independent scholar of the commons