Tragedy of the Commons

A Jewish perspective on a seminal essay of the modern environmentalist movement

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Reprinted with permission from A Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment, to be published by Canfei Nesharim.

In 1968, in one of the seminal articles written on the subject of environment protection, Garrett Hardin assured himself a place in the annals of the environmental movement. His article entitled The Tragedy of the Commons became a "must-read" for every budding environmentalist in the nation, if not the world.

The Problem of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons describes the ruination of a common pastureland, called the commons, by the herdsmen who share it. Each herdsman knows that for every additional animal he adds to his herd, he will recoup all the benefits, whereas the costs--in terms of pasturage for the animal and any damage to the commons caused by additional overgrazing--will be shared by everyone. Therefore, each herdsman tries to maximize the size of his herd, at the expense of everyone else.herd of cattle

In Hardin's words: "Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."

Hardin uses the hypothetical case of a common pasture to illustrate what he feared would be the fate of mankind in the limited global ecosystem. The environment--our life support system--is also a commons, shared by all. From a narrow economic point of view, it makes sense for each individual or corporation to maximize his profit by exploiting the environment as much as possible. The profits will be all his, and the costs, in terms of pollution and the exhaustion of resources, will have to be shared by everyone using the commons. When a large group of individuals act in this manner, the environment--and ultimately everyone--suffers.

Solving the Problem

Different approaches have been offered towards solving the problem of the commons. Free-market economists suggest that privatization of public resources is the answer. Once the resources go from a public good to a privately-owned good, the owners will have the incentive to conserve, or otherwise protect their property. Others, such as Hardin, take a very different approach. They suggest that the answer is increased government intervention to limit freedom of usage of the commons and protect it for the current and future generations.

Hardin also--and this is perhaps the main theme of his article--suggests that the real problem is too many people trying to share the commons, and believed that the only real solution was to take away the "freedom to breed," as he puts it.

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Rabbi Akiva Wolff is director of the environmental responsibility unit of the Center for Business Ethics in Jerusalem. He also teaches environmental management at the Jerusalem College of Technology--Machon Lev.