Alan Kirker


June 30th, 2022 by

“In economic science, the tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action” (Wikipedia, retrieved June 2022).

In a paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later” (1990), authors Feeny, Berkes, McCay, and Acheson, review ecologist Garrett Hardin’s 1968 prediction that ecological degradation on a variety of geographic scales is inevitable if the common resources are not managed either through private enterprise or government control. Feeny et. al. suggest instead that various combinations of four categories of property rights; unregulated open access, exclusionary private property, communally-held property, and state-regulated property, can mitigate against a tragic divergence between individual and collective rationality. There is “ample evidence of the ability of groups of users and communities to organize and manage local resources effectively”, and a recent resurgence of interest in grass-roots democracy, public participation, and local-level planning, coupled with global agreements and treaties, in turn calls for a more comprehensive theory of common property resources that is “capable of accommodating user self-organization or the lack of it” (p. 13, 14).

Beyond valuing short-term self-interest, it is difficult to solve environmental problems by appealing solely to individual goodwill, according to biologists Rankin, Bargnum, and Kokko, in their paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons in Evolutionary Biology” (2007). They observe through looking at populations of flora and fauna, that organisms “are frequently able to resolve the tragedy with little or no cognitive or communicative abilities”. The energy expenditure of territorial conflict might leave a resource intact, with costs incurred only to the participants, as illustrated in the plant competition for light (p. 644 – 647).

Resolving tragedies of the commons in the natural world may be achieved through a variety of mechanisms. The voluntary ‘look-out’ sentinel behaviour of meerkats is individually optimal with direct benefits, and in other species, population and kin structure selection may help align individual interests with those of the group while discouraging local competition. The “policing” behaviour of social insect colonies provides examples of sophisticated coercion and punishment, while overall diminishing returns and ecological feedback often reduce the benefits gained from selfish behaviour, as in the quorum sensing of bacteria which decrease their production of bacteriocine when population densities are low (2007, p. 649).

When applied to human societies, do analogies from natural communities offer any insight in light of growing environmental concerns and other tragedies of the commons? Or, do they fall short given the complex nature of our public goods problems?

In an essay titled, “In Search of The Common Good” (June 2022), author Win McCormack suggests modern education systems, collectively owned through civil and open negotiation, are seeing a shift from their original purpose to “inculcate in students the desire and the ability to seek the common good for society as a whole”, to that of competitive market places with business-based performance and teaching focused on individualistic and competitive market ideologies. This results in growing inequalities and a diminishing of the lower and middle classes, as McCormack acknowledges, “markets are by their nature non-egalitarian” (2022, p. 68). What does this foreshadow for civil society as a whole?

Feeny, D., Berkes, F., McCay, B. J., & Acheson, J. M. (March 1990), The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later, in Human Ecology, Volume 18, Number 1, (pp. 1 – 19). DOI: 10.1007/BF00889070

McCormack, W. (June 2022), In Search of The Common Good, in The New Republic, (p. 68). Tomasky, M. (Ed.), Gillis, K. (Pub.), [HTML document] retrieved June 2022 from New York, United States: Lake Avenue Publishing.

Rankin, D. J., Bargnum, K., & Kokko, H. (November 2007), The Tragedy of the Commons in Evolutionary Biology, in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Volume 22, Number 12, (pp. 643 – 651). [PDF document] retrieved June 2022 from


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