All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1970

The Tragedy of the Commons

Mr. Batten, an experienced forester and stu­dent of human and natural resources, presently is a free-lance writer in Boulder, Colorado.

The title for this piece was bor­rowed from Garrett Hardin and his article that first appeared in Sci­ence, and later in The Environ­mental Handbook prepared for the First National Environmental Teach-In.

I do not want to imply that I agree with all of Hardin’s ideas, but he does give a very good ex­planation of the tragedy of com­monly owned property when each person is free to use it as he sees fit.

He uses as an example the com­mon pasture, where, as explained by Hardin, each herdsman asks, “What is the utility to me of add­ing one more animal to the herd?” This utility has two aspects: the positive one of increased income to the herdsman from the sale of the additional animal, and the negative aspect of increased overgraz­ing created by one more animal. Since the positive increment goes entirely to the herdsman, and the negative effect is spread among all the herdsmen who use the pasture, it is obviously to the individual herdsman’s advantage to increase the size of his herd, regardless of its effects on the pasture. This same conclusion is reached by every herdsman that shares the common pasture.

As Hardin explains: “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.”

With today’s increasing concern over our natural resources and our environment, ecologists are fond of pointing at present-day deserts in the Middle East, Spain, and other parts of the world that were once productive lands, but were turned by man into nonproductive barrens.

But if we were to study the his­tory of these areas in detail, we would find that they are examples of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” where each herdsman tried to reap the most possible benefit to himself from common pastures, without re­gard to the negative aspects of over-use of the land.

We witnessed the same phenom­enon in our own West, when stock­men appropriated vast areas of publicly-owned land for their own use. As long as each stockman had control of “his own range,” it was generally well managed, within its grazing capacity. But when the range became overcrowded, and the Federal government yielded to demands to open the public ranges for indiscriminate use, serious overgrazing began, to the detri­ment not only of the lands, but also of those who used them.

On the other hand, some of the most productive lands of the world have been privately owned and managed for centuries, for the benefit of the owner.

It is not possible to get optimum use out of commonly owned lands, no matter how well regulated they may be by some land agency or authority. Each interest seeks to gain the most possible from the land. The grazier is not interested in the timber resource. The tim­berman is not interested in the minerals that may lie beneath the soil. The miner is interested in neither the grass nor the trees.

But if the land is owned by an individual, whether he is a rancher, a timberman, or a miner, all the costs and all the benefits accrue to him, so he seeks to make the best possible use of the property. The rational owner realizes that in the long run the practices that are best for the land are the best for him.

The timberman owner sees the grass and makes it available for livestock or wildlife, while making sure that the land will be kept pro­ductive for future crops of both timber and grass. Even the miner, who may seemingly destroy the land through strip mining, recog­nizes that his own best interests require the reclamation of that land for timber, grazing, recrea­tion, or other uses that will satisfy human wants.

So the real “Tragedy of the Com­mons” is that we have failed to learn from our past experience. We have failed to learn that land and resources in private ownership will not be destroyed, but will be pre­served, simply because it is in the owner’s best interest to preserve them.