Tragedy of the Commons: Meaning, Example and Criticism

The tragedy of the commons is a problem that highlights the fact that people consume resources for their benefit and at the expense of all the other consumers. Resources are scarce but people have infinite needs and demands. Hence, it must be made sure that people do not abuse these resources and have a sense of community. In this article, we shall discuss in detail what this problem highlights and what are the consequences of this problem.


Tragedy of the Commons: Meaning, Example and Criticism

What is meant by the Tragedy of the Commons ?

Also Read: Understanding Adverse Selection and the Lemons Problem in Economics

The tragedy of the commons is a phenomenon that explains that every individual in a society has a benefit and incentive of using resources but there is a cost to utilizing and using the resources available in a country. Each person uses the resources at the expense of all other people in society. There is no way of restricting people from using such resources.

We can find many different examples of such cases in real life. One simple example is if every shepherd is to act in their self-interest and allowed their animals to graze on one common field. The field will be destroyed and there will be no grass left. If every person in society is to act for their benefit, then the resources will be depleted, and it will result in harmful overconsumption.


Understanding the Tragedy of the Commons Approach

It is a common phenomenon in economics that people tend to have limitless demands, but the resources are limited. Especially, natural resources are very limited and they must be utilized sustainably otherwise they can get completely diminished. People also have less incentive to reinvest in the resources that they utilize because they are not answerable for their actions and most people do not understand the severe consequences of their actions.

The tragedy of the commons occurs when common people act in their self-interest instead of the well-being of the entire society. The theory proposes that it is very important to restrict individuals from misusing any resources, the government can make reforms and policies to back sustainable production and utilization of resources, especially natural resources.

The main assumption of this theory is that the resource in consideration must be nonexcludable, scarce and must rivalrous (which means that if one consumer is consuming it then other consumers cannot consume it at the same time) and all consumers are rivals with each other to consume that good.


Example of the Tragedy of the Commons

One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is overfishing. As the population is increasing around the world the demand for food is also increasing. Seafood is consumed all around the world, especially in Asian countries. The number of fish on every coast is limited but fish import companies and local fishermen have been using dangerous and brutal methods for fishing this has led to the extinction of many species of fish and has also destroyed marine life.

Overfishing has led to the destruction of sea life, and the pollution in the oceans has increased significantly over the years. One big example is the 3% decrease in the overall population of blue tuna fish. If the government and local environmental protection agencies do not intervene in such practices, then it is a great possibility that most marine animals will become extinct in a few years.

Another important example is underground water. In many countries such as the US, people use underground water for drinking purposes and about 50 billion gallons of water are used every day in the country for agriculture. Due to such aggressive use of the underground, resources are decreasing at a significant rate. This situation has raised a very alarming threat for the country.

Not only in the US but in countries around the world, water resources are on the verge of extinction, this has caused a shortage of water and people are facing many different problems. The governments in various counties have introduced water reforms and are trying to protect their water resources.


How to avoid the Tragedy of the Commons ?

The tragedy of the commons is becoming an increasing threat all over the world. The extinction of natural resources is a concern for the entire globe. There have been many studies and research based on replacing the use of natural resources with renewable energy. Some of the most efficient methods of avoiding this problem are as follows.


a) Adopting sustainable methods of production

In modern times there are many countries that have addressed the issue of depletion of natural resources, and they are trying to replace the use of natural resources with sustainable energy resources. For example, solar panels have been installed to produce electricity instead of using water. Many countries have also banned the use of plastic wrappers and shopping bags and have instructed to replace them with paper-based products, this has been done to safeguard marine life.


b) Preventing over-consumption of resources

The biggest cause of the tragedy of the commons is the overconsumption of resources. People use the resources accessible to them without realizing their importance and the scarcity of the resources. The government in every country must make strict and proper reforms to ensure the safe use of resources. In most countries, property laws and water reforms have been introduced to prevent the overconsumption of resources.

Moreover, the government should also invest in educating the masses regarding such important issues and must make them aware of the consequences of their actions. If natural resources are not prevented now, there will be nothing left for future generations. Hence, mindful, and limited use of resources must be endured. The companies and brands abusing natural resources must be banned or fined. This problem cannot be avoided if each and every individual in society plays their part.


Criticism of the Approach

Even though the tragedy of the commons is a very practical approach, it highlights a very important issue. But still, many economists have come forward and criticized this approach because of the solutions it provides. The tragedy of the commons suggests that the problem can only be eliminated by giving complete control of natural resources to the government or by privatization.

A very famous scientist Ostrom Elinor carried out extensive research and she found out that the tragedy of commons cannot be overcome by complete control of the authorities but instead requires the participation of the entire society. She suggested that if people have a sense of community and good moral values then they are more likely to respect their blessings. She gave the example of Switzerland and Japan both countries have done a great job at maintaining their resources and the reason is their extreme sense of accountability, efficient management, and great gratitude for natural resources.



To conclude, the tragedy of the commons highlights a very important and alarming problem that is impacting the entire world. It suggests that often people consume a resource and only take into consideration their benefit instead of acting in the interest of the entire community. This raises a lot of concerns for the global community as natural resources are on the verge of extinction due to overconsumption. It is high time that governments and global organizations come forward and make strict policies for the prevention of resources otherwise there can be irreversible consequences for this planet.

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