29 pages 58 minutes read

Garrett James Hardin

The Tragedy of the Commons

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1968

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Important Quotes

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“It is fair to say that most people who anguish over the population problem are trying to find a way to avoid the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing any of the privileges they now enjoy. They think that farming the seas or developing new strains of wheat will solve the problem—technologically. I try to show here that the solution they seek cannot be found. The population problem cannot be solved in a technical way […]”

(Introduction, Paragraph 5)

Human overpopulation, which threatens the world with ecological catastrophe, can’t be fixed with a simple technical adjustment, like improving driver safety by installing a seatbelt. Instead, the solution requires changes to our attitudes and mores. People must rethink their lavish lifestyles and their freedom to have lots of offspring. 

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“We want the maximum good per person; but what is good? To one person it is wilderness, to another it is ski lodges for thousands. To one it is estuaries to nourish ducks for hunters to shoot; to another it is factory land.”

(Section 2, Paragraph 7)

As human populations increase, people tend to build out into the wilderness until it’s taken over and transformed by human activity. As this process begins to strain ecosystems beyond their limits, people will have to choose what to build and what to restrict, but those choices can be difficult. Nature does it simply, by killing off organisms that outgrow their limits, or by reducing the numbers of those that exploit their environs in especially damaging manners. Either way, humans have some tough decisions lying ahead that will decide whether they, and other life forms on the planet, will survive. 

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“Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone. What shall we do? We have several options. We might sell them off as private property. We might keep them as public property, but allocate the right enter them. The allocation might be on the basis of wealth, by the use of an auction system. It might be on the basis [sic] merit, as defined by some agreed-upon standards. It might be by lottery. Or it might be on a first-come, first-served basis, administered to long queues. These, I think, are all the reasonable possibilities. They are all objectionable. But we must choose--or acquiesce in the destruction of the commons that we call our National Parks.”

(Section 3, Paragraphs 11-12)

When populations increase, it strains resources, especially for things like national parks, which are static in size. That they’re cheaply or freely available to all leads to crowds of campers, whose sheer number threatens to damage park ecosystems. The result is that parks are destroyed because they’re desirable.