Def.: “The Tragedy of the Commons”

A key phrase for those interested in economy and ecology, coined by Garrett Hardin in 1968 – refers to the fact that when people act in rational economic (private) self-interest with respect to common (public) resources, the common resources are quickly exhausted, leaving everyone resourceless. Teaches us that consumption for private gain and ensuring access to public resources require thinking about sustainability and responsible consumption.

see: Wikipedia and Fred Pearce’s recent book When the Rivers Run Dry, which applies the idea to today’s global water crisis.

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5 Comments on “Def.: “The Tragedy of the Commons””

  1. P Says:

    So let’s start things off with a difficult question. Can we apply the concept of the Tragedy of the Commons to the digital realm – in other words, when we diconnect the resource from the possiblity of physical scarcity, how do we understand this idea of “sustainable consumption”?

    It seems to me that proponents of tight copyright regulations certainly think that the production of cultural resources is not sustainable if there is unrestrained (i.e., free) consumption and “expert” or “professional” producers of culture loose their profit motive.

    I guess I have to ask, do we come down on different sides of this Tragedy depending on the resources we’re talking about?

  2. pizzapelsa Says:

    Well, I actually think the resources itself make some difference here. Natural resources are easy to deplete, but digital resources, which can be copied ad infinitum, are not. When I “consume” coal, the coal goes away (or gets cycled into the atmosphere), but when I “consume” an mp3, the original sound file doesn’t leave the drive space I download it from. I don’t have to deplete digital resources to distribute them, unlike natural resources.

    In other words, even if users come to the internet looking for booty, in the sense of goods (media, information) to enjoy privately, there’s no danger of “running out of water” or “running out of wood,” so to speak. The only tragedy of the commons that could be triggered by digital information sharing would come in the form of secondary costs – the electricity required to run all these computers.

  3. P Says:

    But isn’t the argument that file-sharing/piracy depletes not digital cultural resource (the mp3) but rather the potential currency that would be earned if the mp3 were acquired though a commercial interaction.

    It’s this real/imagined pool of income for artists, record companies, etc that disappears through the unchecked consumption of p2p. This, in the view of the RIAA, is an unsustainable system because when this currency resource is depleted, artists no longer have the incentive to produce new work, at which point the pool of cultural resources becomes stagnant (i.e., there can be more and more copies of the old files, but no new files).

    Now, even if we want to argue against this pigeon-holing of cultural production inside the commercial model, we might still argue for some notion of sustainable consumption in terms of cultural resources, if that means supporting individual artists on a grassroots level.

    But maybe there is a large question here: digital or analog, how should we understand the tragedy of the commons vis a vis cultural resources. What sort of cultural resources can and can’t be depleted? Is our understanding of this “depletion” sufficiently broad?

  4. pizzapelsa Says:

    In light of your last comment, I think we could say that the tragedy of the digital commons would come if everyone visited the web only to consume, not to produce or share. Downloaders must also upload. So as internet users, we should promote an ethic of sustainable consumption, which means mixing consumption and production, in the sense that each person who draws from the pot of common resources should also contribute to it.

  5. P Says:

    This seems to fit in exactly with Lawrence Lessig’s notion of online sharing economies, where the interests of both the individual and the group are met through production and consumption.

    I also like how your formulation has the potential to turn Hardin’s equation of self-interest=consumption on its head in a digital context – or just in a cultural context. The tragedy of the commons assumes that the self-interested individual has no reason (or even ability) to produce resource, only to consume. In the case of natural resources, this might be mostly true. But in the case of the cultural commons, doesn’t the self-interested individual also want to see his or her work displayed to the world?


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