Avi Bhaya Intro to Sociology Professor Colin Jerolmack

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In any society, all members share resources. Globally, all countries and nations share resources sprouting from the earth: food, water, even oxygen. Slowly, several trees throughout the planet in places like the Amazon forest have been chopped down by large corporations so that they can be used to create merchandise (furniture, paper, etc.) and make a profit. But they are slowly wiping out one of the most important resources to the planet: oxygen.

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Without oxygen, humans fail to survive. By taking down these trees, these corporations and people in positions of power have become responsible in some part for the rising CO 2 levels in the atmosphere. Another example of a resource that has been used for profit is fossil fuels. They are mined from the earth and sold without any regard as to what the usage of fossil fuels does to the planet. The usage of fossil fuels also contributes to the rising CO 2 levels in the atmosphere. The other issue with fossil fuels is that it is a finite resource? this is not something reproducible. Once it is used up, there’s no getting it back. It would take thousands of years for dead organisms such as animals or humans to fossilize and be available for use. These are examples of a phenomenon known as “the tragedy of the commons,” a plight faced by societies in their poor usage of resources. In this circumstance, certain individuals, generally of a higher class, use resources in a manner that solely benefits their own self­interest, rather than in favor of the collective good.

In his article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin uses different scenarios to provide discourse for the conclusion reached in an article on the future of nuclear war. Towards the end of the article “The Test Ban and Security” by Jerome B. Wiesner and Herbert F. York, the authors make the claim that “both sides in the arms race are thus confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. It is our considered professional judgement that this dilemma has no technical solution” (Wiesner, York, 21). Hardin finds issue with this statement? in fact, this is the subject of his article.

Hardin takes issue with the claim that there is “no technical solution” (Wiesner, York, 21). He applies the concept to the issue of overpopulation, in which he makes the claim that people who believe new technological advancements are the solution to overpopulation are wrong. He compares the different kinds of “good” that different people are in pursuit of? “To one person it is wilderness, to another it is ski lodges for thousands. To one it is estuaries to nourish ducks for hunters to shoot? to another it is factory land. Comparing one good with another is, we usually say, impossible because goods are incommensurable. Incommensurables cannot be compared” (Hardin, 168). Hardin contradicts this idea and states that in real life, incommensurables actually can be compared. All that is required is merely a weighing scale.

Using a model of a pasture, Hardin begins an application of the concept. “It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day when the long­desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy” (Hardin, 169). Hardin’s model provides a strong picture for us to understand the tragedy of the commons because it presents a scenario that helps us understand the concept in both smaller and larger contexts. He elaborates on his model by explaining how each man in the pasture is trying to give themself boundless profit in a space that can not contain that. Because of the freedom provided to each man, they will obviously not stop to maximize their profit, which will eventually lead to a collapse of the system.

In Herschel Elliott’s article, “A General Statement on the Tragedy of the Commons,” he provides a more simplistic view of the concept while also responding to Hardin’s article. He notes how several environmentalists and ethics professionals ignore the essay. Elliott’s article is meant to provide a more general explanation of the concept so that it can reach a wider audience. Elliott’s article is also beneficial to its readers because it provides a simpler approach to the moral aspect of the tragedy of the commons? something also covered by Hardin. “ Only stubborn and muddled thinkers, however, can make believe that the world is infinite. The delusion of its infinity blinds them to the fact that all human activity must take place within the narrow range of resource use that the Earth can sustain… The author conducts a simple­seeming thought experiment in which he proves that any ethics is mistaken if it allows a growing population steadily to increase its exploitation of the ecosystem which supports it.” (Elliot, 516) The tragedy of the commons is more complicated than simple human action? it doesn’t have to do with habit, but more with thinking. The tragedy of the commons is something that can be reversed, theoretically, but it never would because we, as a species, are not meant to last.

These two articles relate to each other, firstly because one is written in indirect response to the other, but also because while Elliott’s example is meant to be a simplification, it actually serves as an expansion of Hardin’s work. Elliott’s article is also more useful, in a sense, because of its reach to a wider audience. That being said, Hardin’s article is still incredibly useful in understanding the tragedy of the commons and does a better job of applying it to the world.

Joanna Burger and Michael Gochfeld analyzed the tragedy of the commons in their 1998 article “The Tragedy of the Commons 30 Years Later.” They explain how Hardin’s paper became more than a staple of sociology and economic theory but that it was the birth of a discipline. Even his naysayers still affirm his thoughts on the dangers of the relation between resources and a population. The article’s main focus is on providing examples of the tragedy of the commons in practice.

One of the examples of the tragedy of the commons in the real world is that of fisheries. The authors are quick to note the broad scale of this example and that it can be local, regional or global. Fisheries are both a good and bad example of resource management because different fisheries take a different approach towards how they manage common resources. Some even acknowledge the tragedy of the commons without even realizing it in practice. They understand the dangers of wiping out their resources too fast in the pursuit of a profit and so make sure to ration and grow their resource so that they can create a greater, long­term profit. This is generally contained to smaller fisheries, as larger, more global fisheries have unrestricted access to the planet’s seas. Burger and Gochfeld note that regionally specific species, such as “shrimp farming along the tropical coastlines is one important example of a land­margin commons issue where a combination of private, state, and communal property rights prevail” (Burger and Gochfeld, 10). Since this species is in high demand, it has turned the regions into a farm and in turn damaged these communities. Larger corporations have the power and the funding to push out the locally based fishers financially. Eventually, these farms become incapable of providing profit to the companies and they are deserted, leaving these places and communities damaged. These companies, in pursuit of profit, cause serious harm to the communities surrounding their farm sites as well as the species being farmed.

Burger and Gochfeld provide an example of a failed use of common resources. They elaborate on the “ inshore marine resources [which] are managed by state governments as a trust for all citizens. However, even within this government­regulated system fishermen can cooperate locally to preserve a common­pool resource” (Burger and Gochfeld, 10). The authors go on to take into consideration the common­pool resource of lobsters. These are a relatively easy species to harvest, which means that anyone has a right to harvest as many of these creatures as they feel. “In Maine, the state government does not limit the number of licenses, but the lobstermen practice exclusion through a system of traditional fishing rights. Acceptance into the lobster fishing community is essential before someone can fish, and thereafter one can extract lobsters only in the territory held by that community. The end result has been a sustainable harvest and higher catches of larger, commercially valuable lobsters by fishermen in the exclusion communities” (Burger and Gochfeld, 10).

These two examples shine a bright on Hardin’s concept. They address the use of smart, business savvy thinking while also addressing the environmental aspects of the issue and show through actual practice that the concept and Hardin’s musings can help provide some kind of guidance when it comes to the use of a common­pool resource. In this instance, the resource can be reproduced but in the case of the planet’s air quality, the resource has increasingly become more and more dwindled, essentially reaching a point of no return. By depleting these resources, such as fossil fuels, not only is the potential for greater profit lost but also causes harm to the communities from which said resources are harvested. Even worse, depending on the resource in question, it can cause damage to other communities outside of the situation and cause a chain reaction that would begin to slowly but surely damage more communities, creating a chain of global consequence.

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Avi Bhaya Intro to Sociology Professor Colin Jerolmack. (2021, Mar 23). Retrieved December 10, 2022 , from

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