Tragedy of Commons and Clean Water

Tragedy of Commons and Clean Water

Anyone who’s ever visited a third world country such as India or Bangladesh where the water from the tap isn’t potable and can lead to illnesses among other health concerns, knows how satisfying it can be to return to the United States, and take advantage of clean tap water. Tap water in the United States is reliably clean with added fluoride for strong teeth. However, it would be naive to think that America has always had clean water and has never suffered from environmental abuse. This is problematic as the environment belongs to everyone and a clean, healthy environment with clean water that remains consistently safeguarded is a fundamental right of all, vital for strong communities (Symons, 2011). “Rivers were so polluted 40 years ago that they were literally burning and waters were so degraded that they were virtually lifeless. It was clear to Americans and congress that our waters needed protection. With many of our nation’s waters then serving as open sewers, congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The result was one of the most successful clean-ups in the history of humankind, with nearly dead waters like Lake Erie bouncing back to health and productivity” (Symons, 2011). However, as Symons reminds us, old habits have a habit of popping up once more over time, and many bodies of water in and around America are back in the same polluted position are they were decades ago.

This scenario is directly comparable to the many situations of flawed human behavior as described by Hardin in “Tragedy of the Commons.” For example, Hardin goes into great detail describing how the base situation of overpopulation would not even be an issue if it were not for the welfare state. Just as the government “pitched in” and essentially bailed out human beings and their self-centered behavior which manifested itself through littering and polluting the common water supply decades ago, so the government continues to bail out such egotistical behavior via the welfare state. While it’s ideal and appropriate for the government to have programs and resources available for families and individuals in case of crisis or emergency as after all, that is what people pay taxes for, there is always the danger that this net will become a crutch and a crutch that people abuse. For instance, as Hardin illuminates without a welfare state: “Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately for their children” (1968).

However, as Hardin explains because society is so deeply connected to the idea of a welfare state, this means that the government will eventually always have to have a hand in controlling the population; whereas, if there was no welfare state, that would simply happen naturally: the number of children that each family would produce would be directly connected to how many they could support on their own. Hardin presents the idea with far more eloquence: “If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own ‘punishment’ to the germ line then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state (12), and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons” (1968). This point is directly comparable to the government swooping in and using money and resources to clean up years’ worth of human contamination of the water supply. If this help were not an option, Americans would learn pretty quickly that their survival is dependent on not engaging in such counterproductive and destructive behavior and water pollution, one could argue would then regulate itself.

However, as Hardin suggests, the problem of water pollution (and all “common” natural resources on planet Earth) orbits around the issue of selfishness and individual freedom. Simply put, too many people do what they want, selecting courses of action which simply benefit their own self-centered interests. All negative consequences reaped by such actions, thus have to be shared by the whole. Hardin gives the famous example of the herdsmen whose animals graze on shared land. As Hardin explains, each herder is looking to increase his individual gain so they each add one animal to their respective herd. Thus, the gain each herdsman reaps is clear: they each gain the profits from the addition of one animal; however, the drawbacks are also equally lucid. The communal land upon which the animals graze can easily become stripped and barren as a result of over-grazing.

However, this destruction becomes something that the herdsmen all have to share, including any herdsmen which didn’t add an animal to his load. Hardin deftly uses this example to showcase how such short-sighted selfishness can truly wage lasting destruction for all. “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” (Hardin, 1968). As Hardin succinctly states, when society is composed of members who think only of themselves, all are destined to be on the receiving end of destruction and devastation. While the example that Hardin offers is particularly true when one considers the water supply and the issues which motivate and perpetuate water pollution, this example is analogous to a host of environmental problems from air pollution and the destruction of the ozone layer, to overpopulation, to land pollution, a shortage of trees and plant-life and the elimination of entire species of animals, such as a the Tarpan horse — while this was a type of animal that died out in the late 1900s, the reasons that it became extinct are comparable to the reasons why animals nowadays become extinct: elimination of their natural habitat and hunting (environmentalgraffitti).

Certain scientists explain water pollution as simply a byproduct of the advancement of the human race: “For instance, the formation of industrialized cities, along with the agriculture/livestock production practices needed to sustain them, have contributed to water quality concerns and the development of drinking water treatment technologies” (Magnuson et al., 2005). While there may be some accuracy in such a summation of how pollution in America works, such a summary generally misses the vital component of how human behavior fits in. As Hardin points out, when it comes to pollution it’s the act of putting something into the common: something dangerous, radioactive, chemical, noxious or unpleasant (1968). This action is based on a calculation of utility comparable to that made by the herders: “The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest,’ so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers” (Hardin, 1968).

When it comes to proposing solutions to the particular issue of water contamination and analogous environmental issues, Hardin explains thoroughly why appealing to the emotions and conscience of the general public will be ineffective. Before one examines Hardin’s reasoning for this assertion one need look no further than human history. Animal rights activists have spent hundreds of years pleading to citizens, legislatures, hunters and consumers to stand up for the rights of animals. Such activists have communicated the value of these animals, their majesty, their uniqueness and the duty of human beings to protect them. Despite these efforts, more and more animals have joined the list of those forever extinct and vanished. The same is true, Hardin argues, regarding the act of appealing to people’s sense of conscience; Hardin argues that when that occurs people essentially hear two opposing messages of communication: “If you don’t do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen”; (ii) (the unintended communication) “If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons” (1968). What Hardin is arguing is that by emphasizing the common problem (self-centered behavior) there is a certain sense of permissibility in the perceived group power, a belief that if everyone is doing something then it’s somehow justifiable.

A lucid example of how this dynamic works is as follows: “In an experiment in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, Cialdini [researcher] placed signs at entrances asking people not to take home petrified wood. The sign at one entrance showed three thieves with an X over them, while at another entrance, the sign depicted just one thief. The latter was far more effective at reducing theft” (Steen, 2012). This example demonstrates that a perceived group mentality gives any act — be it stealing or polluting — a strong sense of justifiability if a person believes that the act is being perpetuated by others.

The solution that Hardin proposes is that of a coercive method; as always he gives a lucid example to support the point that he proposes. Hardin reminds the reader that society mutually agreed to make it illegal to rob banks, rather than appeal to the sense of responsibility to those who wish to rob banks as a means of deterring them. Bank robbers (real and potential) know that very immediate consequences await them, such as police chases which could end in injuries or fatalities, jail time and other comparable results. These consequences are real and immediate because they’re reinforced by the state, the judicial system and by the police force. This form of coercion prevents more people from attempting to rob banks. Our natural resources of water need to be treated as though they’re as valuable as banks filled with money. Dumping chemicals such as fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and personal care products into sources of water should be viewed as a felony by the state and judicial system and be enforced as such.

After the numerous Wall Street scandals caused major corporations to be instructed to stop the spread of greed and corruption within their organizations by praising and rewarding good behavior, so should the government begin to reward behavior that benefits the common. For example, organizations that create green methods of chemical disposal or which find ways to re-purify bodies of water are all ways the major powers can take a stand on what is most valuable to society and the common good.


Environmentalgraffitti, n.d. 7 Extinct Animals: Rare Photographs. [Online]

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Magnuson, M.L. et al., 2005. Responding to Water Contamination Threats. [Online]

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Steen, M., 2012. How to Prevent Cheating. [Online]

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Symons, J., 2011. The Importance of the Clean Water Act. [Online]

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