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The ‘tragedy of the commons’

Is climate change caused by a failure to cooperate? Is collective action the solution? Learn about the tragedy of the commons with The Open University

We have seen that climate change has grave effects. Our best science leaves us in little doubt that the problem is real and largely caused by us. We have a fairly good idea what needs to be done! So, you may ask yourself, as many do, why is there still a climate crisis coming our way?

One way to explain inaction – by individuals, corporations or countries – is to understand climate change as a ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem. The idea goes back to William Foster Lloyd and became famous through an article by environmentalist Garrett Hardin [1].

The ‘tragedy’ happens when rational and self-interested agents add more and more cows to a common pasture – until the land is ruined. If they had cooperated, if they had made some rules, respected each other’s needs and farmed sustainably, they would have preserved the pasture and their livelihood.

This short animation explains Hardin’s idea of a ‘tragedy of the commons’. You may have to watch it several times.

Share your thoughts

What ethical questions are raised by the ’tragedy of the commons’? Does it help you think more clearly about climate change?


  1. Hardin G. The tragedy of the commons. Science. 1968;162(3859):1243–1248 [Online]. Available from: (Accessed 29 April 2019).
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