Tragedy of the Commons as Conventional Wisdom

Earlier this year, I co-authored with (Marco Janssen, Rimjhim Aggrawal and Skaidra Smith-Heisters) a paper on how Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is used in university-level education.

Here is a nice cartoon from that highlights the general message of this tragedy:


Hardin’s original message, however, was very incomplete. Unfortunately, what we found in a survey of undergraduate instructors in sustainability and environmental education, is that many share Hardin’s incomplete and misleading version without regard to the vast literature that expands on this old story.  You see, Hardin was using this metaphor of an open access commons (an area shared by all with no rules governing its use) as a way of describing his life boat ethics.  Hardin’s (twisted) logic was that the earth was being overpopulated and rich countries would be overrun by poor, overbreeding countries.  This was his tragedy of the commons.

What we found through our survey is that many instructors continue to use this simple version of the commons without governance without referencing the work of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom or that of countless others that shows that people can and often do find means of governing the commons – either through self-imposed regulation or other means.

We hope that continuing to draw attention to how people self-govern, we can move past Hardin’s tragedy and work towards better collective outcomes.

Citation:  Marco A. Janssen, Skaidra Smith-Heisters, Rimjhim Aggarwal & Michael L. Schoon (2019) ‘Tragedy of the commons’ as conventional wisdom in sustainability education, Environmental Education Research, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2019.1632266


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Roger on November 17, 2019 at 3:08 pm

    Hi Mike! anyway to read this paper without paying Taylor & Francis $43?


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