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Moving Climate Change beyond a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’

Photo: J.Adger

Garret Hardin’s influential essay the Tragedy of the Commons was first published 50 years ago, in December 1968. Hardin argued that global human population was on a path of unsustainable growth through the use of a parable of over-grazing of livestock on common land. The concept of ‘the tragedy of the commons’ largely assumes that individuals are solely motivated by self-interest, an assumption increasingly at odds with insights across the social sciences. The original article, and idea of the tragedy, has had a profound influence on science and policy across all environmental issues. In the five decades since its publication, a concerted scientific response by multiple disciplines, exemplified in the work of Nobel prize-winner Elinor Ostrom has deepened the analysis of the causes of environmental overexploitation. Such work has documented commons dilemmas and assembled evidence that collective action can be mobilised at various scales to avoid tragedies in population, in overfishing, in resource consumption, and in land degradation.

Many commentators argue, however, that global climate change represents the ultimate Hardin-style tragedy: the global commons of the atmosphere cannot realistically be enclosed or effectively managed, and power asymmetries and concentrated benefits from fossil fuel use mean that irreversible thresholds will be crossed before the costs are fully realised.

Yet this pervasive framing of climate change as a commons tragedy limits how we confront the climate challenge. In a commentary in Global Environmental Change, published to coincide with the 50thAnniversary of The Tragedy of the Commons publication, Josh Cinner, Neil Adger and I present insights from two key areas of political and behavioural sciences that are expanding the potential solution space by highlighting how climate change is a dilemma of decision-making and moral values rather than simply a global resource – or global commons – tragedy. First, collective decision-making is as much about managing risks to political systems and their legitimacy, so-called second order risks, as it is about managing the physical and material risks of climate change as documented by science. Second, emerging psychology research demonstrates the range of moral underpinnings that can be mobilised for effective collection action on climate change. These insights shift emphasis away from a commons tragedy to more complex set of governance challenges.

In our piece we reflect on the relevance of Hardin’s thesis 50 years after its publication to today’s global challenges, and particularly in the context of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 °C which highlights a rapidly closing window of little more than a decade to transform the relationship between society and climate. Whilst Hardin’s analysis relied heavily on an over-grazing parable – in effect a moral tale of the collective tragedy caused by the ‘rational’ greed of individual cattle herders – we are not advocating a new parable: any over-simplified story is clearly problematic. But the power of parables is in their ability to illustrate a moral issue. Indeed, the subtitle of Hardin’s article, was that the population problem he analysed ‘has no technical solution: it requires a fundamental extension of morality’. We argue that addressing climate change requires building the necessary system of moral frames, and fundamental changes in governance systems to better manage both first and second order risks.

The paper is:

Katrina Brown, W.Neil Adger and Joshua Cinner, Moving climate change beyond the tragedy of the commons Global Environmental Change  54: 61-63

Download it here

And watch a short film about it here

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