Garrett Hardin — the man behind the ‘tragedy of the commons’

7 Aug, 2019 at 13:52 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

Fifty years ago, University of California professor Garrett Hardin penned an influential essay in the journal Science. Hardin saw all humans as selfish herders: we worry that our neighbors’ cattle will graze the best grass. So, we send more of our cows out to consume that grass first. We take it first, before someone else steals our share. This creates a vicious cycle of environmental degradation that Hardin described as the “tragedy of the commons.”

tragIt’s hard to overstate Hardin’s impact on modern environmentalism … But here are some inconvenient truths: Hardin was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamophobe … And he promoted an idea he called “lifeboat ethics”: since global resources are finite, Hardin believed the rich should throw poor people overboard to keep their boat above water …

Of course, plenty of flawed people have left behind noble ideas. That Hardin’s tragedy was advanced as part of a white nationalist project should not automatically condemn its merits.

But the facts are not on Hardin’s side. For one, he got the history of the commons wrong. As Susan Cox pointed out, early pastures were well regulated by local institutions. They were not free-for-all grazing sites where people took and took at the expense of everyone else.

Many global commons have been similarly sustained through community institutions. This striking finding was the life’s work of Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics …

Matto Mildenberger / Scientific American


  1. Tragedy of the Commons is really a normative prescription. If you aren’t destroying the commons for free, you’re not acting rationally. I see this in the forest all the time: if you aren’t dumping your garbage for free there, you are losing money …
    I want to produce less garbage. Why can’t I put ubiquitous plastic packaging into a 3D printer to make sandals? Because capitalism wants to centralize production and maintain control. Subscriptions to enclosed centralized production is more profitable than individualized, self-contained, decentralized production technologies. Capitalism thus creates the Tragedy of Privatization by enclosing land I want to use responsibly (leaving no trace), and instead strip mining it, clearcutting it, leaving rusting equipment all over …

  2. ” Hardin was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamophobe…” I’m horrified.

    Eugenics was supported by a significant proportion of the political left in the UK between around the mid 1930s and 1950s, which is just one bit of evidence that what the political left thinks is largely a matter of fashion, rather than based on reason or evidence: not that I’m suggesting the political right are hugely interested in reason or evidence either. .

    Re “Islamophobia”, what exactly is wrong with criticising a religion? Am I allowed to criticise female genital mutilation and wife beating, or would that be “Islamophobic”?

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