Shop Windows to the Universe

Become a nitrogen atom in the nitrogen cycle in our Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit/Game. See all our games, activity kits and classroom activities.
Will our beaches become an example of the Tragedy of the Commons?
Click on image for full size
NCAR Digital Library

The Tragedy of the Commons

The term "Tragedy of the Commons" was coined by Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article in Science magazine. The concept, however, dates back to the days of Aristotle. Briefly, it states that a shared resource is inevitably ruined by uncontrolled use.

The metaphor that Hardin uses to explain the concept is that of a community common or park on which the town’s people bring their cows to be fed. In the back of everyone’s mind is the fact that the common is going to be ruined because the grass is going to be eaten to depletion. Still, everyone wants to get grass for their cows. No one thinks or cares about the consequences of so many cows eating the grass, and the Tragedy of the Commons occurs.

Human actions that many categorize as examples of the phenomenon include human-created air pollution; the hunting of the American buffalo to near extinction in the 1800s; the widespread abuse and destruction of rainforests and our oceans’ coral reefs; and human-induced climate change due largely to the burning of fossil fuels for energy use.

Some people believe that the Tragedy of the Commons can only be averted by making most commodities private property. But how does someone own the air or the ocean? And can either the air or ocean stay unpolluted with populations of 10 million or more in the world’s megacities? Others believe the "Tragedy of the Commons" can be avoided through laws and taxing devices which make it more costly to serve one’s self interest over the common good.

What almost everyone can agree on for now is that such vital resources need some form of control so that the world’s natural resources can be sustained and the Tragedy of the Commons can be avoided.

Last modified February 19, 2006 by Teri Eastburn.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

The Fall 2009 issue of The Earth Scientist, which includes articles on student research into building design for earthquakes and a classroom lab on the composition of the Earth’s ancient atmosphere, is available in our online store.

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Air Pollution

What do smog, acid rain, carbon monoxide, fossil fuel exhausts, and tropospheric ozone have in common? They are all examples of air pollution. Air pollution is not new. As far back as the 13 th century,...more

Rainbows

Rainbows appear in the sky when there is bright sunlight and rain. Sunlight is known as visible or white light and is actually a mixture of colors. Rainbows result from the refraction and reflection of...more

The Four Seasons

The Earth travels around the sun one full time per year. During this year, the seasons change depending on the amount of sunlight reaching the surface and the Earth's tilt as it revolves around the sun....more

Research Aircraft

Scientists sometimes travel in specially outfitted airplanes in order to gather data about atmospheric conditions. These research aircraft have special inlet ports that bring air from the outside into...more

Anemometer

An anemometer is a weather instrument used to measure the wind (it can also be called a wind gauge). Anemometers can measure wind speed, wind direction, and other information like the largest gust of wind...more

Thermometer

Thermometers measure temperature. "Thermo" means heat and "meter" means to measure. You can use a thermometer to measure the temperature of many things, including the temperature of...more

Weather Balloons

Weather balloons are used to carry weather instruments that measure temperature, pressure, humidity, and winds in the lowest few miles of the atmosphere. The balloons are made of rubber and weigh up to...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA