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The Tragedy of Fixing the Tragedy of the Commons

As individuals in a globalized world, it's difficult for us not to think on the individual scale. Call it selfish or call it survival; it's every man for himself in these crazy times. But does it have to be this way? Sure, the ideologies rooted in Western civilization for centuries, are seemingly harmful, but is it possible to displace generations of belief for a greater cause? That depends on whether or not we care enough. That is the position in which our current climate conundrum takes place. The tragedy of the commons exists on an environmental scale, but it's not the sole tragedy. In order try and the fix it, one must look beyond the tragedy at the many relative issue that help perpetuate it.

There is an incentive to break the rules of the commons because there is a lack of trust in each other. We're afraid of being cheated by each other, so we take from the commons and because everyone takes there will be no more commons left. This could be due to alienation from each other or alienation from the decisions that affect our lives. To manage the commons there needs to be set boundaries on what the commons is and who shares them. A balance of the costs and benefits of sharing said commons creates an incentive to share the commons instead of abusing them. There should be communal authority and autonomy over the commons; because they are the ones using and working together, those sharing the commons should have cooperative power over how to manage them. In order to maintain the commons, “some system of monitoring needs to exist so that people’s behaviors and uses are known to the group” and thus it requires sanctions on those who disobey the collective rulings (Robbins, Hintz, Moore 57).

Yet, the problem still stands as to how to create a functioning common in an individualistic capitalistic world on a large scale. The ideas above theoretically show how to maintain and tragedy-less commons, but it’s easier said than done. There must be “something deep in or human nature that keeps us from acting in the face of seemingly remote threats” (Klein 16) because if it's not in our backyard people don’t seem to care. We could use soft coercion—fines and taxes—but there is the chance that an individual is willing to pay the fine to not recycle. So, if soft coercion has its flaws, then hard coercion—laws, sanctions, and punishments—can be used, right? Yet in the Western world, the United States in particular, where individual rights are valued, such a method would not work. “The stories on which Western cultures are founded…as well as many of the activities that form our identities and define our communities” support a system that is killing our Earth and in affect killing us (Klein 63). Although it's rational to “use humans as a point of reference” (Lomborg 12) for we are humans and can see through no other perspective. But, this entitlement to the earth’s resources sparks greed and corruption in humans and thus preserves the tragedy of the commons.

So, how are we to communicate this issue when we are disconnected from each other, either because of technology, the economy, or ideologies? In an experiment conducted by Elinor Ostrom to test the tragedy of the commons, she found that when the subjects were to interact face-to-face, they were more humane and less likely to abuse the commons (Conca, Dableko 65). So, the answer is to work together, see each other as community rather than competition, but the question is still how? In Garret Hardin's essay, “Tragedy of the Commons”, he begins with quotes from an article about the future of nuclear war. They claim that the answer to the problem lies beyond technological fixes, that it lies on a human level (Hardin 1243). Working internally to make environmental change is harder than technological progresses that help the tragedy of the commons in the short run, but it is needed for a greater long-term solution. Morals and opinions are relative and it is problematic for me to say that someone’s values are detrimental to the environment. When you threaten someone’s ideology, you threaten “not just faith, but core cultural narratives about what humans are doing here on earth” (Klein 41). So, communication and rhetoric are extremely important due to the personal nature of this argument. Only when we learn how to interact properly can we work together under a common goal.

An example of a community working together for the greater good of the commons is the “Two Agendas on Amazon Development” proposed by COICA. What they demand seems like natural human rights to me: for international corporations to be educated about the Indigenous peoples living in the Amazon, for them to “recognize the rights of Indigenous Peoples” and “consult directly with the organizations of Indigenous Peoples throughout the process of establishing this policy”, for there to be consent from the Indigenous Peoples about development projects (Conca, Dableko 58). COICA wants to create a relationship with the massive corporations that use the Amazon’s resources in Locke’s point of view—as how it can benefit economic progression (Conca, Dableko 57). But capitalism isn’t the only factor at fault. COICA fears that environmentalists have excluded Indigenous Peoples while trying to preserve the Amazon and humans are just as part of the environment as any other organism (Conca, Dableko 62). Neither one of the two extremes of a human centered world and human-less world are helpful. There needs to be a “rethinking [of] the very nature of humanity’s power” (Klein 25) and a more linguistic approach to the problem (Conca, Dableko 68) that is the idea that the problem is made up of other problems, a holistic approach to a seemingly one-sided problem.

To think of the tragedy of the commons as a relative issue beyond economics and the environment, we can learn more about how much more complicated it is than herdsman overusing cattle. We need to rethink the bases of Western ideology in order to rethink the tragedy of the commons. Maybe it is as easy as reading the Tao Ching and “see[ing] the world as yourself. Have faith in the way things are. Love the world as yourself; then you can care for all things” (13). Or maybe it is at least a start.

Written by Alexia Tiches


Conca, Ken, and Geoffrey Dableko. Green Planet Blues. BASIC Books, 2014.

Hardin, Garrett. “Tragedy of the Commons.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2010,

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Vintage Canada, 2015.

Laozi, and Stephen Mitchell. Tao Te Ching: a New English Version. HarperCollins, 2006.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government . Jonatha Bennett , 2017,

Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society: a Critical Introduction. Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

Visser, Wayne, and Bjørn Lomborg. “The Skeptical Environmentalist.” The Top 50 Sustainability Books, 2001, doi:10.9774/gleaf.978-1-907643-44-6_37.

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