The Tragedy of Commons

The concept of Tragedy of Commons revolves around an individual’s motives to act according to benefit oneself without taking into account the interest of the whole community or society. The theory of Tragedy of Commons was first developed by the American ecologist, Garret Hardin who defined it as “a situation where shared environmental resources are overused and exploited, and eventually depleted, posing risks to everyone involved.” (, 2020)


The model developed by Hardin can be understood with the following example. Let us take a piece of land, a common good that every individual has access to. If the common resource, in this case, the land, is devoid of regulations to monitor the usage of the land by the people, then it will be exploited by one and all in the pursuit of short-term benefits in the short run. This action, in the long run, will result in the destruction of the resource (Boston University, n.d.). This is the basic idea of the tragedy of commons, wherein the common good faces destruction due to the over-exploitation by individuals which reflects on the society in a negative way.

The theory of commons may have its roots in the Classicists. The Classical Economics believed that if every individual worked in the self-interest of his own well-being, then collectively the society would be benefited. The tragedy of commons is a model, which defies the ideology of the Classical Economists.

The theory is well-established in the field of environmental Economics and Science and lays out a strong foundation for the most-pivotal concern of the 21st century – Climate Change. If you would take a country, every country acts in its own self-interest to have a strong economy, thriving industry, and the cheapest energy possible. But, chasing the goal with a parochial outlook results in a disastrous result for the only planet we know life exists. It is indeed crucial to understand the importance of an international community collaborating to solve burning issues like Climate Change.

According to Ashurian, a research scientist, “issues of global climate change have to do with the people that are in charge of different countries, the decisions that they make and the moral outlooks of people. Philosophy is just the understanding of the ethical viewpoint, and political science is about looking at this modern issue from an international and political standpoint.”, thus emphasizing the need to combine the knowledge of philosophy and political economy to make sense of the environment and our world.

The Tragedy of Commons is typically individuals acting in their self-interest without collectively looking at the resource and population as a whole. The COVID-19 pandemic is in itself a suitable example of the tragedy of commons. During the initial days of the health crisis, people were scared to step out of the comfort of home as they were suspicious of everyone. Although this was the scenario on one hand, parallelly, the pandemic was also the time when individuals started stocking up on essentials. Every person thought that everybody will stock and possibly tried to solve the problem by overstocking. People thought logically, from an individualistic point of view, rather than collectively. Hence, the relevance to the tragedy of commons. Individuals took their own benefit into account at the cost of consumption in society.

Chennai’s groundwater

As mentioned earlier, the primary cause of the tragedy of commons is the lack of clear property rights over the resource. The tragedy of commons can also be understood with an example of Chennai’s groundwater resource. A person owning a piece of land in Chennai, claims ownership over the groundwater below that piece of land. Though ownership over the groundwater is not legally established, he/she digs a bore and consumes the groundwater on the assumption that he/she has a right over the water flowing below the land he/she owns. The primary reason why such a scenario occurs is due to the fact that the property rights over a public good/ common pool resource like that groundwater are not clearly defined. As a result, every individual goes on consuming without paying any cost for it, as the good is non-excludable. Ultimately as every individual keeps consuming for his/her benefit, it leads to the depletion of the groundwater resource and the entire society suffers.

Tackling the issue of Tragedy of Commons

The possible solutions to counter the issue of the tragedy of commons include the enforcement of laws and regulations that give property rights to private individuals in such a way that the private parties take ownership of the environmental resource. Secondly, legal institutions should be strengthened in order to ensure that anybody exploiting an environmental resource (in the present case, illegal construction of borewells in Chennai) without prior approval from the Government, or the respective regulatory authority faces legal sanctions in terms of penalty or imprisonment.


A Look at Undergraduate Research: Tragedy of the Commons & Climate Change. (n.d.) Boston University of General Studies.

Anukwonke, C. (2015). The Concept of Tragedy of the Commons: Issues and Applications.

ResearchGate. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4977.9362 What is ‘Tragedy of the Commons’? (25th August 2020).

Published by LakesOfIndia

Lakes of India is an E.F.I initiative aimed at sensitizing the larger public on freshwater habitats across the country. A blog platform where one can read about lakes across India. You can become a guest blogger to write about a lake in your hometown and initiate an action to protect that lake.

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