A Shared Resource. A Shared Concern.

Leydn McAvoy — Milton Academy

Who should manage a shared resource or have the power to decide its use: the government, the people, or both? Garrett Hardin explains the answer through a concept presented in his 1968 essay “The Tragedy of the Commons”:  “a pursuit of self-interest in an open-access commons that leads to ruin”, and “without adequate controls on access of these resources, the tragedy of the commons is inevitable” (Hardin, Garrett “The Tragedy of the Commons”). In his essay, Hardin describes the fate of an unowned, available common pasture. In this situation, he explains how it is in each herder’s self-interest to maximize his or her use of the commons at the cost of the community at large. The herders gain benefit by adding one more animal to his or her herd, yet each herder overgraze the pasture, and the costs is distributed to the community. Instead of a pasture, we could discuss a fishery, the air, a lake, or land in regards to this concept. In each case, the economic benefit is the same, and if access and the use are not limited to some degree, over-use is inevitable as demand of market grows. Hardin’s discovery not only highlights the problem of lack of concern from decisions, but shows how it is a useful way of thinking about environmental issues, including the Keystone Pipeline project.

The Keystone Project provides an extensive network of oil-distributing pipelines, including one that provides an important link between the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada and the United States (Krauss, Clifford “Keystone XL Pipeline: A New Opening, but What Lies Ahead?”). Because the pipeline will transit the Canada-U.S. border, the construction requires an affirmative decision by the U.S. State Department–and ultimately the president (Brown, Matthew “Court can’t suspend Keystone XL pipeline decision, Trump administration says” ). In President Donald Trump’s statement on the administration’s approval of the pipeline, President Trump outlined the rules he proposed in reaching his decision were “the job wages, economic security, and oil independence” from building the pipeline (The Associated Press “Trump Signs Off On Keystone Pipeline”). As the demand for oil is persisting, the government is not helping to find an alternative, carbon-free options to drive domestic and private sectors to be more sustainable by encouraging the use of these resources for future production of oil, gas, and coal. The Keystone Pipeline will continue the U.S.’s economic dependence on these resources and the use of fossil fuels to drive our energy economy. Increased use of these resources to supply our economy creates a gateway to more carbon-intensive means of fossil fuels and extends to a new aggressive coal mining industry because fossil fuels are so available to use. The economic benefit from the pipeline encourages the “tragedy of the commons”—a dynamic fostered by the ability to increase benefits for some while dispersing the repercussions. Like the herder example, each group sought benefits, while dispersing the costs of providing those benefits to the public at large. While the project provides thousands of jobs and supports the U.S. demands of market, many Native American communities worry that the transportation of fossil fuels may contaminate water sources near the pipeline, infringe on fishing rights, or desecrate Native American’s sacred land. Hardin argues “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,”1,  describing how regulations the U.S. adopts to manage common resources can put an end to the “tragedy of the commons” (Ravitz, Jessica “The Sacred Land at the Center of the Dakota Pipeline Dispute”). In doing so, he explains how some must “relinquish the freedom to breed,”1 showing how we have to make decisions that focus on the concern of all. Like the herders, the American people had no adequate incentive to withhold from grazing one more animal and no interest to hinder their obtainment of concentrated benefits at public expense. Although this focus on the concern of others may discourage people from making decisions that negatively impact the community, some lack the adequate incentive to make decisions for the interest of all.

As an alternative, Hardin suggests that greater reliance on property rights was a proven way to protect the commons. He explains that the “tragedy of the commons” is “averted by private property or something formally like it" (Hardin, Garrett “The Tragedy of the Commons”). Indeed, Hardin argues that ownership of land will prevent this tragedy. In his essay, he recognizes that property rights are “well-defined and secured,”1 and the “tragedy of the commons” is less likely for each owner who has incentive to prevent the overuse of his or her resource. Although defining and defending property rights may be difficult, Hardin believes that it is worth pursuing in order to protect resources. To fulfill this idea, Hardin understands that property-based institutions can be adapted to ecological resources for more sustainable practices. When the government fails to acknowledge the concern of the people, households and companies have the power to make the decisions by property rights. If the “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” idea of the government fails, the chance to protect resources lies in the hands of property institutions. If people are willing to protect their land like the Native Americans only can we end this aspect of the “tragedy of the commons”.

Works Cited

Hardin, Garrett “The Tragedy of the Commons” 1963


Krauss, Clifford “Keystone XL Pipeline: A New Opening, but What Lies Ahead?” 26 Jan. 2017


Brown, Matthew “Court can’t suspend Keystone XL pipeline decision, Trump administration says”


The Associated Press “Trump Signs Off On Keystone Pipeline” 24 Mar. 2017

Ravitz, Jessica “The Sacred Land at the Center of the Dakota Pipeline Dispute” 1 Nov. 2016