The Tragedy of the Commons: Balancing Individual Desires and Collective Well-being

Amulya Sonthi
5 min readAug 23, 2023
A illustration that depicts the balance and battle between choopsing the path that benefits only you versus a path that benefits everyone
https://patimes.org/tending-to-the-commons/

The Tragedy of the Commons stands as a famous lesson that continues to implement itself through time in the world of human behaviour and resource management.

Imagine a pasture shared by a community of 4 men who all relied on the farm for food. Let us say this farm started off with a dozen chickens and they reproduce where for every 2, 1 chick would be added each day. In order for all the villagers to be able to preserve the number of chickens, each villager must only take 1 chicken each day. And if the villagers act on self-interest and take more than 1, the number of chickens, which is our common resource, will be depleted and the initial number will not be able to be revived. Further on, as one individual is acting out on self-interest, others will also seek to maximise their own gains. This results in hunger for the villagers, soil degradation and overgrazing. This is the Tragedy of the Commons. This tale captures a truth — the complex relationship between individual interests and the common good.

This concept could be ridiculed as from first thought, you and I assume we would follow the said morally correct path of taking only 1 chicken a day. Yet we are heavily influenced by those around us especially those with more, which in turn fuels our greed. It may be in small doses but in the long-run the change would be prominent.

Therefore, the Tragedy of the Commons is not just a concept; it’s a way through which we can understand the intricate link between self-interest and sustainability, and it urges us to explore solutions that lead us to balance the two key areas.

The Tragedy of the Commons has developed from minimal observations to an influential framework for understanding a wide array of challenges faced by societies across the globe. From environmental degradation to urban congestion, overfishing to online misinformation, this concept highlights the crucial equilibrium between individual actions and the collective well-being. So, where did this concept arise from?

This theory was originally the work of British economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833. Influenced by prominent economists and thinkers of his time, Lloyd made significant contributions to the field through his insightful analyses, which were presented in his essay named “Two Lectures on the Checks to Population”. His work highlights these negative consequences of unregulated individual actions on shared resources. He argues that when individuals act solely in their own self-interest without considering the long-term implications, it can lead to the overexploitation and degradation of common resources. The quote that closely represents this argument below is one that personally stuck in my mind:

“The misfortune is that individuals pursuing their own immediate interest often make it the interest of all to do that which is ruinous to the general prosperity” (Lloyd, 1833).

This quote highlights the detrimental consequences of unchecked individual actions driven by self-interest, which can lead to the tragedy of resource depletion or degradation that affects the collective.

Illustration that shows traffic congestion and the environmental consequences
https://stock.adobe.com/uk/search?k=traffic+jam+illustration

To explain this further, we could use the real-life example of where Tragedy of the Commons has been evidently seen. Traffic congestion is a one example that springs to mind. Let us place a scenario where we are planning a trip to London; while numerous individuals take public transport, each commuter desires a faster, more efficient route to their destination. Often, this leads to the use of personal vehicles. However, when everyone follows this logic, traffic jams arise, causing frustration, wasted time, and environmental harm. In this scenario, the “road commons” suffer from overuse due to the same individual decisions that seem rational at the micro-level. So what are the root causes for this?

Well, delving deeper, we find that the Tragedy of the Commons emerges from a mixture of factors. The absence of clear property rights paired with the inability to enforce regulations creates a ground for exploitation by all members of society. Moreover, the short-term gains that individuals want to achieve often overshadow the long-term consequences of their actions. This concept puts forward the links between human psychology, economic incentives, and the pursuit of self-interest.

While the Tragedy of the Commons paints a simple picture, it also sparks a call for innovative solutions. Cooperation and collaboration emerge as pivotal strategies to counteract the self-destructive behaviours of society today. Examining successful cases, such as community-managed fisheries and digital collaborative projects, we glimpse the potential of collective action to avert the tragedy.

Looking more closely at solutions to counter this concept, the awareness of the consequences of unchecked individual actions on shared resources has prompted policymakers to implement measures aimed at preventing the tragedy and promoting sustainable resource use.

One significant area where the Tragedy of the Commons has influenced policies is in the management of fisheries. Overfishing and depletion of fish stocks have been a global concern, and Lloyd’s concept has shed light on the need for regulations to prevent the tragedy. Policies such as fishing quotas, catch limits, and the establishment of marine protected areas have been implemented to control fishing activities and ensure the long-term sustainability of fish populations.

Additionally, the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons has influenced policies addressing pollution and the management of common-pool resources. Measures such as emissions trading schemes and regulations to control industrial waste discharge have been implemented to address the negative externalities associated with resource use and prevent the tragedy from occurring.

However, this is only a start and it important for those in power to recognise that the Tragedy of the Commons extends beyond a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ situation. We must take into consideration the intricate web of variables that shape our choices. Cultural norms, technological advancements, and systemic policies all play a role in shaping the outcomes we see. Navigating through this carefully is essential in devising strategies that move us towards sustainable and attainable solutions that truly create change.

The Tragedy of the Commons is not something set in stone; it’s a challenge that urges us to think critically, adapt, and find balance midst competing interests. This timeless concept remains highly relevant in our modern world as we face numerous challenges related to the sustainable management of shared resources. From overfishing in our oceans and depletion of freshwater sources to deforestation and climate change, the concept finds resonance in various aspects of our lives.

As our global population continues to grow, individual actions driven by self-interest can lead to the overexploitation and degradation of vital resources that are essential for the well-being of humanity and the planet. The Tragedy of the Commons serves as a cautionary reminder that without collective action, responsible governance, and a shift towards sustainable practices, we risk depleting the very resources that sustain us. It highlights the need for cooperation, regulation, and long-term thinking to ensure the sustainable use of shared resources for the benefit of current and future generations.

Embracing this concept can inspire us to foster a sense of collective responsibility and make informed decisions that prioritise the common good, thereby addressing the pressing environmental and resource challenges we face today.

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