Hardin, G. (1968) Tragedy of the Commons
In 1968, Garrett Hardin formulated the population problem starkly in “The Tragedy of the Commons.” He concluded that populations must be brought under control because a growing population would eventually destroy its resource base by emptying “the commons.” Writing during the rise of the “Green Revolution,” Hardin rejected two ideas: First, we cannot increase food production by improving technology indefinitely. On a finite planet there are resource limits. Second, we also cannot continue to improve human well-being with an ever-expanding population. He concluded, then, that “the optimum population is, then, less than the maximum.”
However, we cannot easily choose to limit population, and choosing between which goods to pursue in a world that cannot provide for every different good. In a world that values some kind of freedom of choice, we have left the choice of “the good” to individuals. But doing so with incomplete and imperfect knowledge, different ethics, and the plain fact of human selfishness, results in a “tragedy of the commons.”
When a resource is held “in common,” with many people having “ownership” and access to it, rational self-interested people will exploit the resource to their full benefit in the near term. But self-interested behavior places the costs on all users eventually if each person operates this way. Eventually, it will result in the ruin of the commons the possibly calamitous decline of their well-being. This kind of thinking has been used to examine the exploitation of forests, water, fisheries, grazing land, and other systems from which people gather material for their well-being.
“Tragedy of the Commons” is one of the most famous and widely-cited articles in ecology and sustainability. Hardin and others followed it up with other clarifying essays and critiques that can be found here.
This Dinosaur Comic sums up “The Tragedy of the Commons” in a pithy way.