The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin’s

Garrett Hardin offers an in-depth analysis of issues surrounding humanity’s common resources.  There are various common resources alluded to by the author, prominent among them are the geographic commons (the wilderness areas), air waves for telecommunication, public spaces that carry hoardings, the air that we breathe, rivers and oceans, etc. As citizens of a nation, we are all entitled to utilizing the commons for our individual good, albeit respecting certain limitations.  One such right to a common resource is the right to procreate.  While this might appear at first to be an individual right, seen in terms of its broader consequences, it is akin to the commons.  By procreation, an adult couple locks up a portion of the common resources for the sustenance of the child. This includes the air, water, food and other material necessities that the child would require for survival.  But people don’t aspire to merely survive – they want to ‘enjoy’ life’s comforts.  So, the process of procreation also locks up more valuable natural resources for the child.  Hence, the population problem is a core issue concerning the commons.

Published first in 1968, Hardin’s essay displays foresight and identifies an emerging socio-political problem.  In the four decades that has elapsed since it was first written, the population of the world has nearly doubled, making the relevance and intensity of the issues raised more acute. Citing the example of the pastoral commons, Hardin correctly points out how, if each herdsman looks after only his own interests, the common meadows will soon get ruined due to over grazing.  In a world where resources are infinite, or its consumption is negligible (as when the population is too low), such unfettered consumption of resources makes logical sense for the individual and also the society.  In this scenario, not only do the individual and his immediate community prosper, but the species is also propagated, constituting a common good. But the equation changes quickly, once resources become scarce, whereby the consumers feel the ‘finite’ nature of what they use.  In this scenario, an individual looking after himself and his immediate community is no longer practically viable or morally proper.  It is easy to transpose this argument concerning the common pastures to the population question.  By analogy and deduction, it becomes quite clear that individuals/parents can no longer be afforded the right to procreate for their own interests.

The idea of receiving government sanctions for having a child might come across as too radical an idea to most.  But it has already been implemented by China, where the “one couple, one child” policy found widespread success. It is high time that regulation with respect to utilizing/consuming the commons is enforced.  Already, the environment has degraded drastically and global warming is threatening sweeping destruction.  To be able to thwart off these dangers, regulated access and use of the commons is the way to go forward.  Garrett Hardin’s powerful arguments should embolden us toward this goal.  But it should be remembered that Hardin’s recommendation is not greater privatization, which might ensure protection of the resource but not its equitable distribution among the population.  Indeed, in the era of globalization, even erstwhile common resources like water are under private commercial usurpation.  If this trend continues, it will lead to tragic social conflicts.  Hence prudent government regulation is the ideal option.


Society, Ethics and Technology, Fourth Edition Morton E. Winston and Ralph D. Edelbach, pp. 352.