Garrett Hardin popularized the term tragedy of the commons to denote a consequence of the population problem. Drawing on the work of William Forster Lloyd, Hardin describes a scenario in which an unregulated “commons” fosters decisions by individuals about its use that are designed to maximize each member’s own short-term utility. The resulting actions are inevitably to the detriment of the collective interest, and the dynamic is presented to rebut the idea that an “invisible hand” guides individual decisions in the best interests of society.
This dilemma is most evident in decisions affecting shared resources such as the oceans and the food supply, while pollution is an example of the phenomenon in reverse. Hardin suggests that the solution lies, not in an “appeal to conscience,” but in “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” Economists, political philosophers, game theoreticians, and environmentalists continue to grapple with the problem, exploring regulatory means ranging from privatization to state control. Alternatively, a consideration of human behavior as being motivated by more than self-interest calls the inevitability of this “tragedy” into question. Empirical research by Elinor Ostrom and others in support of this more hopeful position uncovers examples of situations where communal arrangements regulate public behavior without government intervention.
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