The 'tragedy of the commons' and why it is helping to scorch our planet

The author of a 1968 paper called 'The Tragedy of the Commons' remains controversial. But the idea that we overuse shared resources lives on — and traditional market solutions may not work in the case of climate change.

When it comes to 'common pool resources,' economists suggest everyone is in it for themselves

As a heat wave gripped parts of Europe last year, crowds headed to the beach in Bournemouth, England, leading to overuse of a public resource. Such behaviour is also an apt metaphor for climate change. (Andrew Matthews/PA/The Associated Press)

If it is hot on the upcoming Labour Day long weekend, you may decide there will be nothing better than a relaxing  jaunt to the public beach.

But as you're trying to squeeze into a small space with your umbrella, pail and sand shovel, between everyone else and their screaming children who had the same idea, all after a grueling slog through weekend traffic, you may decide the trip really wasn't as worthwhile as you envisioned.

In an everyday modern nutshell, that is the idea implied by a 1968 paper in the journal Science entitled "The Tragedy of the Commons." It is a familiar concept in economic and environmental circles, but chats with friends and colleagues indicate it is less well known outside those groups.

The problem with sharing

In many ways, the worrying problems of an overheating world — as outlined in this week's report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — can be traced back to a concept supposedly derived from a small English village and its overuse of a shared plot of land.

And it may be why, despite so many promises and commitments, Canada, like most of the world's countries, keeps increasing its output of greenhouse gases.

"There is truth in the metaphor, but how we use the metaphor can be so fraught," said Dale Beugin, an economist and vice-president of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.

Like many of the stories used to illustrate economic theory, this one's origins and accuracy are disputed. But in its most simple and amiable form, the lesson stems from a plot of village pasture — often described as "the common" in British communities — where those who did not have property of their own could still allow a few animals to graze.

Sheep graze on public land in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. (Pien Steinbusch)

In the economic morality tale, the tragedy arises when so many of the townsfolk set more and more animals on the common land, such that the pasture becomes unproductive and barren. That concept, first outlined in 1832 by William Forster Lloyd, is the basis of the Science paper authored by Garrett Hardin.  

Many of Hardin's other views have been condemned by both the left and right; he supported eugenics and favoured free abortion, and has been described as a white nationalist.

But Hardin's concept that "freedom in a commons brings ruin to all," has been repeatedly used to understand what are called "common pooled resources" in over-fishing, water pollution — and even trips to a crowded public beach via a crowded public highway.

It is also used to understand what we are doing to our climate.

"If everyone optimizes for themselves, it leads to everyone being worse off — and that's true in Hardin's commons metaphor, but it is also true in climate change," said Beugin.

"It only makes sense to make lots of greenhouse gas emissions if we aren't accounting for the damages that society as whole will absorb because of all of our emissions collectively."

The world is a village

That may apply when we drive a gas-guzzling SUV, if all we care about is our personal comfort and prestige, especially if we can stick our neighbour who doesn't drive with an equal share of the climate bill.

And that is what national carbon taxes are supposed to fix.

But as the IPCC report shows, climate change is not just a national problem.

The world's atmosphere is one of the ultimate common pooled resources: The level of atmospheric carbon rises in poor countries, where people produce almost no greenhouse gases per person, at the same rate it does in Canada, one of the world's biggest GHG generators per capita.

Besides some of Hardin's more unsavoury ideas, there is another reason that the tragedy of the commons argument has been controversial: The free market solution that comes with it.

Economists have proposed that the solution to the 'tragedy of the commons' is private ownership. But there is no practical way to assign ownership rights to the planet's atmosphere. (NOAA/REUTERS)

Rather than having a common field that no one looks after, the lesson celebrated by many economists is that fields should not be held in common at all, but privately owned with long tenure. That way a private landowner will only pasture the right number of animals to keep the land's income high.

"That's hard to do with the atmosphere," said Beugin. "I don't think there is any way to assign property rights to the atmosphere."

That may sound hopeless, but there are a few reasons why the tragedy of the commons lesson may not condemn us to a climate Armageddon.

One is the original story upon which the idea is built: For a number of complex reasons, town commons did not all become overgrazed waste lands. Rather than running on a dog-eat-dog principle, communities realized what was happening and developed rules to limit the number of grazing animals.

It leaves hope the world can do the same.

Through research from around the world, the late Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, showed that local communities were surprisingly good at managing pooled resources, especially in traditional settings, because their lives and their welfare ultimately depended on it.

The message was that co-operation works.

Nancy Olewiler, an economist and head of the School of Public Policy at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, remains optimistic that collective climate action by individuals, through their governments, remains possible.

"In the classic case, the commons case, you had to work as a community," said Olewiler. "But the minute you don't work as a community, then the total amount the community can collect goes down."

One problem is that each regional and national player insists they are only responsible for a tiny amount of the total climate damage. "They simply do not want to act unless everyone else acts," said Olewiler.

If you are convinced that countries will only respond to immediate economic self-interest — the way Hardin described English villagers — one way to motivate the slowpokes is to put a tax on imports from countries that fail to cut their carbon output.

But if, like Ostrom, you believe people want to co-operate, another path to climate success is for countries like Canada to scale back on our own share of the global greenhouse gas output, Beugin says, to show the rest of the world it is possible.

If we are not sure which is best, maybe Canada should do both.

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.