On Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons, Lacks Dialogue

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

“The maximum is not the optimum.”

“We can’t cure a shortage by increasing the supply.”

“Birth control does not equal population control.”

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

– Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) was a respected ecologist and philosopher who warned on the dangers of overpopulation. He wrote a famous 1968 paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” which you can download or view in full here.  More information on Garrett’s accomplishments and beliefs can be found at the Garrett Hardin Society site.

The central idea of the tragedy of the commons is that the collective effect of individuals making independent, well-intentioned, rational decisions regarding the use of a shared resource, leads to the degradation of the resource such that it can no longer support the individuals that depend upon it.

Tragedy of the Commons, Pasture and Climate

The classic example, and one we have repeated many times since we came to depend on agriculture 10,000 year ago, is the overgrazing of a pasture shared by herdsman.

A more modern example is someone who emits large quantities of CO2 into the atmospheric commons by flying long distances on a regular basis to spend quality time with family members whose lives will soon be harmed by climate change.

Tragedy of the Commons, Drivers

I was familiar with the concept of the tragedy of the commons but I was not aware that Garrett Hardin was the first modern scientist to write on the topic until a friend recently brought his paper to my attention. I read the paper, learned quite a bit, and recommend it to others.

I was particularly impressed with Hardin’s clear and direct thinking on the threat of over-population and what must be done to prevent it. Here are a few noteworthy excerpts from his essay.

The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another way. In a world governed solely by the principle of “dog eat dog”–if indeed there ever was such a world–how many children a family had would not be a matter of public concern. Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately for their children. David Lack and others have found that such a negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of birds. But men are not birds, and have not acted like them for millenniums, at least.

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line–then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the United Nations. In late 1967, some 30 nations agreed to the following:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right; denying it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, who denied the reality of witches in the 17th century. At the present time, in liberal quarters, something like a taboo acts to inhibit criticism of the United Nations. There is a feeling that the United Nations is “our last and best hope,” that we shouldn’t find fault with it; we shouldn’t play into the hands of the archconservatives. However, let us not forget what Robert Louis Stevenson said: “The truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy.” If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though it is promoted by the United Nations.

It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience. Charles Galton Darwin made this point when he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather’s great book. The argument is straightforward and Darwinian.

People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others. Those who have more children will produce a larger fraction of the next generation than those with more susceptible consciences. The difference will be accentuated, generation by generation.

In C. G. Darwin’s words: “It may well be that it would take hundreds of generations for the progenitive instinct to develop in this way, but if it should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenitivus”.

Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man’s population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short.

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity”–and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

I summarize Hardin’s position as follows:

  • Failure to control population growth will result in ruin.
  • Population control via appeal to reason or conscience, or threat of shame, will not work, and will in fact make the situation worse. Population can only be effectively controlled by coercion, that is, laws with penalties for overbreeding.
  • The key to passing population control laws is to educate citizens on the reality that if they do not relinquish the freedom to breed they will lose all of their freedoms, including eventually the freedom to breed.

Garrett Hardin was a wise and prescient man who attempted to warn his fellow citizens of a serious threat to their well being, and most importantly, told them what they needed to do and why.  Other great people have attempted to do the same, for example, Dennis Meadows and his collaborators on the 1972 Limits to Growth study.

Hardin’s essay was written 50 years ago when the world’s population was 3.5 billion, a level already far in excess of what can be sustained without abundant, affordable, non-renewable, finite, and depleting fossil energy.

Over the last 50 years the population more than doubled to 7.6 billion and many new overshoot threats backed by solid scientific understanding have emerged like climate change, net energy decline, and ground level ozone.

There’s been plenty of information and (opportunity for) education. We can therefore conclude that Hardin’s assumption that education is the key to preventing overshoot is wrong.

As readers of this blog know, I think the key impediment to changing human behavior in a positive direction is the fact that humans evolved to denial reality, as explained by Varki’s MORT theory.

How can a majority emerge to support a contentious law to control breeding when the vast majority of the 7.6 billion people on the planet deny the existence of overshoot?

Much has been written by many people on the tragedy of the commons. Commentators typically fall into one of two groups:

The first group appreciates the centrality of the commons problem to human existence and spends much energy arguing how best to address the problem with the usual divisive, inconclusive, and unproductive positions of right vs. left, private vs. public, capitalism vs. socialism, libertarian vs. autocratic , etc.

The second group denies a commons problem exists, or thinks innovation and technology will solve any problems.

Where is the most important and missing third group?

That would be the group searching for an understanding of how an otherwise uniquely intelligent species can deny its obvious predicament. Brief reflection leads to the obvious conclusion that until we understand the genetic basis for our ability, on the one hand, to understand highly complex topics, like the laws of  physics that explain the creation of the universe and life, and on the other hand, to selectively deny much simpler and plainly obvious facts, like human overshoot and our own mortality, we have no hope of addressing the tragedy of the commons, or any of the other behaviors that threaten our species.

A few people have achieved some insight into our tendency to deny reality but I observe that they usually soon thereafter drop their pursuit of understanding.  I find this very curious because if you have a deep understanding of the human predicament there is nothing more import to understand and to raise awareness of than reality denial.

If you deny the existence or implications of overshoot, then it is logical to embrace one or more of the many arguments against a one child law, austerity, and conservation. On the other hand, if you embrace the reality of overshoot, then a one child law, austerity, and conservation not only become perfectly reasonable, they become the most important, ethical, moral, and rational things we must do.

There is an exciting (for me) passage in Hardin’s essay that hints he may have  understood or anticipated at least a portion of the MORT theory.

…the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…  But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.

Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

Hardin demonstrated a flash of denial insight by correctly identifying the key issue, but then neglected to explore further in his tragedy of the commons essay.  Unfortunately the reference for his comment on denial is the book “Population, Evolution, and Birth Control“, which is a collection of essays by different authors that Hardin published in 1964, in which Hardin himself contributed an essay titled “Denial and the Gift of History”, and is not available on the internet. I would be grateful if a reader has a hard copy of this book and would be kind enough to provide a summary of his essay.

My expectation is that Hardin did not elaborate on denial of reality because there was ample opportunity for him to do so in his other books, papers, and interviews that I downloaded and searched.

I did find this one excerpt from an interview but it is not very insightful and he clearly thinks the solution is more education:

RUSSELL: Okay. The idea of statistics and the population–I have no reason to really go over that. The other one, of denial and the gift of history, which was a fascinating idea. Our view of working at it, our immortality.

HARDIN: Yes. Well, I think everybody, as he grows older and accumulates more experience and more observation of other people–of himself, too–is impressed with how often we try to fool ourselves. It’s an inescapable human tendency. This is part of original sin, trying to fool ourselves, and always to make things look better than they are. The question is, since we’re so ingenious at pulling the wool over our own eyes, what contrary measures can be taken? It seemed to me that this is one of the great apologies for teaching history: when you see other people in the past, people with whom you have no connection, making the same mistakes, then you can, I think, be more objective about yourself, and say, “Well, maybe I’m just repeating what this guy did two- or three-hundred years ago.” And this, I think, is one of the great gifts of history. It gives us long arms for holding instructive examples far enough from our eyes.

A search also suggested that no one else in 50 years thought Hardin’s comment on reality denial was worth discussing. Many people saw and see merit in Hardin’s work, but all seem to have missed his most important point, including perhaps Hardin himself.

I also note that Ajit Varki, the only surviving author of the MORT theory, is no longer researching, or attempting to spread awareness of his theory. Varki is instead leading some research on Glycobiology, which with time, will prove to be insignificant compared to MORT.

Because we understand the dangers, we do not permit alcoholics, or epileptics, or schizophrenics, or blind people to fly our planes.

If we understood our genetic tendency to deny reality, we might not permit reality deniers, which by the way are very easy to detect, to run for elected office.

Many impressive scientists and leaders are working hard to shift the needle on human overshoot. All have failed, and all will continue to fail, if they do not embrace the MORT theory.

We need some scientists and leaders of stature to step up and push awareness of the MORT theory.

A cranky old retired electrical engineer writing a blog doesn’t cut it.

It is too late to avoid a lot of suffering, but with awareness of our predicament we could reduce future suffering, and we might avoid harmful emotional reactions like nuclear war or revolutions.

If we have a hope, MORT awareness might be our only hope.

17 thoughts on “On Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons”

  1. “Cranky, old, retired electrical engineer” seems to describe several of my favorite bloggers. What is it about you guys that gives you the gift of un-denial? Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve spent a career working with a force of nature that only becomes visible when it’s trying to kill someone (e.g., arc flash)?

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    1. Engineers are trained to solve problems. When I first became aware of overshoot I immediately went searching for technology solutions, and after much effort concluded there are no solutions to our predicament. Then my focus shifted to trying to understand how a uniquely intelligent species can be so willfully blind. I’m beginning to wonder if evolution chose to prevent free will with denial of reality.

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  2. Thank you. Excellent insights.

    The third group… I wonder who they are, where and how many? Could it be that there are more people like me, silent and invisible? In my experience you need to be strong in yourself and secure in life in order to be able to speak up about overshoot. Who can and wants to be a Cassandra an entire lifetime? I do admire people who shout out and often wonder how they cope emotionally.

    My personal journey of awareness, if I may call it like that, progressed to the point where several years ago it severely compromised my physical health. As a consequence, my options are limited and I now often choose to shut up in order not to jeopardize my job and therefore livelihood. For me, overshoot is and feels like a trap both at the level of the planet and society as well as at a very personal level.

    I work in private, international education, surrounded by what by a certain measure could be considered intelligent, thinking people. In this environment it is all “about the children”, but – oh, irony – it is impossible to mention overshoot and its consequences. Kids are ‘educated’ about environmental problems and the need to “take care of the earth”. Needless to say that they will be getting on a flight the following weekend to god knows where. It is hard to think of a place that is more intrinsically contradictory. The organisation claims to be at the forefront of education and its mission is to raise “critical, global citizens who will make a difference”. It’s all very childish, LOL. I think even if staff were aware of reality, nobody would be teaching these kids the truth. It would be like pulling the rug from underneath them (and their parents). I guess that despite their education, they won’t learn about overshoot until they experience its consequences.

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    1. Thank you for your aware and wise thoughts.

      I too have paid a price for awareness. I went from having a successful career in the technology industry to part time work on an organic farm doing physical labor, which by the way I love, and hope will provide some food security. Had I not had a little savings from my prior life I may not have survived.

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  3. Rob, you did exactly what I did and have been doing for the last 20 years…..searching for solutions, well, explanations really. Then I shifted to trying to understand. Thanks for being a “cranky, old, retired electrical engineer”. You’ve helped enormously.

    Interesting, eh, that comment from Hardin about natural selection favouring denial. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought when I read the essay years ago. Now it’s really relevant.

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  4. Another thought about selection and denial. What about those of us who are not (or are less) in denial? What role does selection play there? I’m still thinking about that one. Is it just a case of majority wins, but we all lose?

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    1. Your question is central to the MORT theory.

      100,000 years ago awareness of mortality reduced reproductive fitness and thus blocked the emergence of a more powerful brain, until evolution found a trick to deny all unpleasant realities. Today we can add awareness of overshoot to the list of things that reduce reproductive fitness.

      In my case, if I knew then what I know now, I would not have had children. And if my children today asked me for advice, which they probably won’t, I would advise them not to have children. So whatever genes I have that enable me to see reality would not be passed on.

      At a societal scale, if we ever do achieve awareness of overshoot, we will no doubt enact laws to restrict breeding, and reproductive fitness for the species will drop.

      This of course is contrary to what our genes exist to do, which is to compete for finite resources to maximize replication, and so nature is fighting hard to block awareness.

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  5. Rob, another question. I’ve been following your blog for a while but have only just started following you on Facebook. I shared your FB post on my FB timeline this morning. But (on my FB news feed anyway) there’s no comment button for your FB post. So how was Gail able to comment and you to answer her? (I follow Gail’s blog as well).

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  6. Rob,
    On your suggestion, I read Varki’s book and while I think his theory makes sense, I don’t think that acknowledging that denial is built into the way we cope with our consciousness of our own mortality is going to convince the vast majority of people to change their ways. For those of us who have thought about and acted upon the issues which you address in your posts (I read “The Limits to Growth” back in 1972) it’s almost impossible to talk about these issues even with friends and family. Nate Hagens does a wonderful job lecturing about our cognitive biases and one could only hope that he reaches a much larger audience. But we are all so embedded in our fossil fueled world from birth that to think outside that box is extremely difficult.

    We will continue to exploit our natural world until we can’t anymore with all the consequences that this will entail.

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    1. Hi, welcome. I’ve been thinking about the dozens of impressive people over the last 10 years that investigated our predicament. Almost every one of them has gone quiet after drawing the same conclusion as you, namely that we have no free will and people will not change until forced to change.

      Even Nate Hagens, who I have deep respect for, now only does a talk once a year. I know he was writing a book that I looked forward to reading, but haven’t heard anything about it in a long time.

      I’ve been mulling an idea that nature’s mechanism for implementing reality denial is the same mechanism that causes us to have no free will. Maybe it’s all the same thing. When intelligence calculates that it should take some action that conflicts with what the underlying replicators are programmed to do, reality denial kicks in to block the decision, which to an outside observer, looks like an absence of free will.

      Maybe a different way of thinking about Varki’s MORT theory is that intelligence cannot emerge if it conflicts with the objective of the replicators, which is to compete for finite resources to maximize replication. And so intelligence can only exist in the universe if it denies reality.

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      1. I think I sense posting fatigue on the part of many people who write about these issues. I myself had to stop reading some blogs because it just led to a sense of futility. One can’t read this stuff without feeling tremendous unease. Who wants to contemplate the extinction of the human species or mass die-off. I actually stopped commenting on the Resilience website because I felt it had become a meaningless exercise. I was a sole proprietor woodworker most of my life and I think I’ve led a pretty modest life, but by just living in the USA, my ecological footprint is certainly larger than most people on the planet. We have to accept the predicament that we are all faced with and try to live the best we can.

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        1. I felt the fatigue too, until I stumbled on what I thought might be a new and unique idea in Varki’s MORT theory. I’ll stop writing as soon as I’ve said everything important I can think of to say about MORT.

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          1. I like this perspective. I wrote a blog about psychology for a while. When I stopped and people asked why I told them “I’ve said all I have to say about that.” As one who was never profiting from the endeavor – it had a nice sense of completion.

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