For all its influence, the tragedy of the commons has also stirred up a fair amount of controversy. First, many academics have taken issue with Hardin’s claims, arguing that the tragedy of the commons is far from a foregone conclusion, and that it is entirely possible to manage commons in a way that protects them from being depleted. Many others are troubled by the ideological tradition that this concept belongs to, and by the political views held by Hardin himself.
Like the standard economic theories of the time, the tragedy of the commons is founded on the central assumption that human beings are selfish, rational actors; that we are motivated solely by self-interest, and that we will always seize on chances to enrich ourselves, with little regard for others. But, as any behavioral economist will tell you, this assumption turns out not to be supported by the data. People are often irrational, and they often act against their own interests. Knowing what we now know about human behavior, the tragedy of the commons should raise some eyebrows.
Still, the inevitability of the tragedy of the commons didn’t really come into question until 2009, when economist Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on governing the commons. (Ostrom had actually been conducting her research in this area since the 1950s, but she did not gain wider renown until she was recognized by the Nobel committee.) By examining resource management in societies around the world, Ostrom showed that people can, and do, regulate the use of the commons to prevent their overuse. In contrast with Hardin’s cynical portrait of human beings as singularly self-centered actors, her work found that even in the absence of government regulation, communities usually come up with their own systems to regulate commons—and that systems maintained by average citizens actually outperformed the “fancy” government systems.6
Even more troubling is the belief system lurking behind the theory. Lloyd and Hardin were both inspired by the work of Thomas Robert Malthus, an English economist who believed that unchecked population growth would inevitably outpace the earth’s capacity to keep producing food, leading to widespread famine (a “Malthusian catastrophe”). Although many modern economists argue that Malthus was simply wrong—the global population now sits at more than 8 billion, and the apocalypse hasn’t come for us yet—his ideas have often been invoked to justify human rights abuses, including eugenics, in the name of population control.7
Hardin was known to espouse some particularly hateful beliefs. Labeled a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, he was staunchly anti-immigration (particularly non-white immigration), supported the forced sterilization of “feeble-minded individuals,” and advocated for the elimination of social programs, the logic being that welfare and other social security nets encouraged overpopulation by allowing certain groups to “breed” unfettered.1,8
None of this is to say that humans never plunder and deplete shared resources: ongoing crises such as overfishing and deforestation demonstrate that we are plenty capable of doing so. But we should be cautious of the claim that this tragedy is an unavoidable endpoint, and instead look to community-based resource management systems to avert such outcomes.