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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
PRESENTER: Back in 1833, William Foster Lloyd noticed something fascinating about the so-called common pastures. In other words, pastures without an owner, which can be used by everyone. He noticed that these common pastures were in considerably worse shape than those which had an owner. Why? Simply because the short-term self-interest of the people who were using those pastures made them consume too many resources. And in the long run, everyone suffered. George asked himself, should I buy another animal and decided that, yes, he’d make more money that way. He knew he was overloading the pasture, but didn’t care. He wanted the extra money. The problem is that everyone did the same thing.
In the end, the pasture was brutally overloaded and therefore, became unusable. Some people made short-term profits. But in the long run, everyone lost. As far as the pastures which had an owner were concerned, this didn’t happen, because it was in the best interest of the owners to exploit their property sustainably. Today, similar situations occur frequently, for example, with fishing grounds, such as the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, which used to be home to a huge cod population. About 50 years ago, however, technology enabled people to catch a lot more fish than before. The fish population, and thereby the fishing industry, collapsed by the ’90s and might never recover.
The same way humans are doing everything from polluting the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere to generating traffic jams during rush hour. There we have it, the tragedy of the commons.

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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