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What is the 'Tragedy Of The Commons'

The tragedy of the commons is an economic problem in which every individual tries to reap the greatest benefit from a given resource. As the demand for the resource overwhelms the supply, every individual who consumes an additional unit directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits. Generally, the resource of interest is easily available to all individuals; the tragedy of the commons occurs when individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain.

BREAKING DOWN 'Tragedy Of The Commons'

The tragedy of the commons is a very real economic issue where individuals tend to exploit shared resources so the demand greatly outweighs supply, and the resource becomes unavailable for the whole. Garrett Hardin, an evolutionary biologist by education, wrote a scientific paper titled "The Tragedy of the Commons" in the peer-reviewed journal Science in 1968. The paper addressed the growing concern of overpopulation, and Hardin used an example of grazing land when describing the adverse effects of overpopulation.

Common grazing lands yield adequate food for herd animals as long as the number of grazing animals is limited from natural population control such as disease. If, however, the natural controls are circumvented or do not come to pass, the population of herd animals increases and the grazing land is unable to support the larger population. Hardin's point was if humans faced the same issue as in the example with herd animals, each person would act in his own self interest and consume as much of the scarce resource as possible, making the resource even harder to find.

Real Examples of The Tragedy of the Commons

The Grand Banks fisheries off the coast of Newfoundland is a prime example of the tragedy of the commons. For hundreds of years, fishermen in the area believed the fishing grounds to be abound with cod fish. For centuries, the fisheries supported all the cod fishing necessary. However, in the 1960s, advancements in fishing technology made it so fishermen could catch comparatively massive amounts of cod fish. Fishermen started competing with each other to catch increasingly larger amounts of cod, and by 1990, the population of cod fish in the region was so low, the entire industry collapsed.

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is another example of squandered resources by the tragedy of the commons. The Mississippi River is extremely fertile, and thousands of farmers flocked to the area, over-fertilizing the river and its tributaries. The rain from the winter months washed the nutrients and chemicals from the fertilizer downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone where no life can be sustained. The dead zone occurred as a direct result of over-farming an area with historically high yield.

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