The Tragedy of the Commons.

The tragedy of the commons typically starts with a common good or shared resource that is free for all, as an example here we have 4 farmers each with one (1) cow, the shared resource is the pasture and each cow grazes just a little out of this resource, this system can usually be considered stable or balanced.

"The commons" originates from the colloqial term of unregulated grazing land back in 1800’s in the British Isles.

Trouble starts when one farmer figures out that there is enough grazing land for at least one more cow, ( conveniently his extra cow ), this makes economic sense since he can take advantage of the free food for his cow and earn more money.

The result is insignificant at first, the system can easily handle the extra cow.

Problems start brewing when the other farmers either notice the extra cow and do the same or figure out on their own that one more extra cow ( conveniently their extra cow) will not deplete the system.

The shared resource eventually reaches its limit, the tragedy happens when all these extra cows deplete the supply of grazing land ( the commons) and in some cases the system collapses practically overnight. Those not wise to the tragedy of the commons and even those actively involved in depleting the resource are left asking the usual questions:

What Happened, how could this happen, why did this happen, who is responsible for this.

It should be noted that the resource itself can play a mayor role in the accelerating tragedy since the more of it is consumed it can degrade faster, the cows instead of nibbling the grass blades eventually pull the grass roots, ensuring they won't regenerate.

Exploring solutions :

Privatization :

At first glance, privatization might solve the problem, the shared resource is divided amongst the users along with the responsability for their share of the resource. A number of side effect are unfortunately introduced by this solution:

  • No more shared resource : In our example this could mean people could not use the resource for other unrelated activities ( wallking on the pasture for instance ).
  • The division method could also introduce new problems to 3rd parties, ( wildlife migrations for instance ).
  • And perhaps the most insidious one: Someone now owns something that previously was free for all, it might even get passed down generations thus creating a generational advantage, in short this solution makes for a less equal world.

Education & Information :

Education on the common resource as well as the limits of it’s use via past, current and future information and predictions is a great way to solve this problem in perhaps a more civilized way, let the individual know his contribution to the system.

The main problem with this solution hinges on appealing to a persons morality and good nature which in turn needs some sort of baseline or common ground to be effective. In other words even if I tell you that the extra cow is going to be the end of you and everyone around you, I would need to figure out a way to make that information and outcome relevant and important to you, not an easy task.

Additionally, Information and Education can be misused with alternative motives in which case it becomes propaganda. Quality and focus is also important.

Regulation :

Regulation of a common resource usually involves a government stepping in and declaring the common resource a public good that can only be used under certain rules and regulations by certain users, there are usually also penalties associated with it’s missuse.

Regulation brings it’s own set of problems: a corrupt and inefficient government might create inefficient and unjust regulation. A state’s government might over regulate as a form of political power. Regulation usually, but not always brings a coercive punitive element, and it is unclear people always respond to it better than other alternatives.

Conclusion :

Once you start looking at the world in terms of free shared resources and systems, the tragedy of the commons is literally everywhere:

Public land and resources: overfishing, congestion, pollution, overpopulation.

Public space: street vendors, littering, cellphone use, noise/light pollution.

Politics: graft, favoritism and in general corruption.

But these are narrowly defined cases… In a team or social setting, all the good qualities end up being a common resource ( honesty, perseverance, attitude, etc,etc.), having someone say “ I’ll be a little less honest,hard working or nice” is all it takes for the tragedy of commons to start taking ahold and should be prevented.

Knowing is half the battle as they say, and now you know. I hope this short explanation can help you identify and solve whatever tragedy of commons problem you might be having or encounter.

Thanks for reading !


This is but one example of a common system you might encounter in your everyday life, there are many more, I did not discovered it, I am just trying to explain it to others. If you are interested, the Bible of systems thinking was written by Donella H. Meadows: 
Thinking in systems, highly recommended.

About the Author :

Born Eugenio Noyola Leon (Keno) I am a Designer,Web Developer/programmer, Artist and Inventor, currently living in Mexico City, you can find me at

AI, Software Developer, Designer :

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