In December 1968 economist Dr. Garrett Hardin wrote a seminal paper called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Largely used in the field of economic theory, I believe it has relevance to those of us tasked with thinking about resource management.

All farmers think about this too, and so in this column, I introduce the subject and make the case for its consideration when we think about our future.

The “commons” is simply a resource that we use in our lives. The term “use” is defined as some physical component of our planet that helps provide life-sustaining inputs. Examples include the obvious ones of soils, surface water, groundwater, forests, fisheries, wetlands and petrochemicals.

The “tragedy” refers to a tipping-point when the commons is used extensively to the point it is damaged beyond any technological solution to repair it. In other words, something is damaged or is missing, and no amount of science or engineering will repair it or bring it back to some level of wholesomeness.

Putting the two words together, Hardin suggested that we, as a society making up a civilization in a nation or region or entire continent, can destroy a commons if there is no fundamental rule of law or governance, or intrinsic morality, to protect it.


If our primary objective is complete freedom for everyone individually to use a resource as a commons, without thought given to what impact that free use has upon our fellow humans and for those following us in the next generations, then we soon destroy the resource or commons. This is tragedy.

Hardin made a compelling case for humans to think about the level of freedom we ask for, the robustness of our American individualism and every man for himself. Those of us with a family history of going West (mine began in Pennsylvania, with a stop in Iowa and then Oregon) had that pioneer spirit.

Such an attitude was manifest during a time when land was readily available for homesteading, resources like surface water and groundwater were plentiful, soils were still somewhat stable with historical levels of high soil organic matter, the density of farmers and livestock were spread out, not concentrated, and productivity was lower than today.

The migration West was built upon the individualism of our very existence in the U.S., a country born out of revolution, so that man was the centerpiece of the Manifest Destiny.

This destiny populated the West – let us say west of the 100th meridian – yet for decades the impact of the resources, those that are shared as part of the commons, were benign and subtle enough that we fulfilled that destiny, and our country became the envy of the world.

There is a point, however, when the human density increases and the stress on the resources comes together … we near a tipping point when the resource is no longer in balance with the withdrawal rate.

A classic example is an aquifer that is beneath our farmland: wells are dug, electrical lines are installed, center pivots are built, and we irrigate a crop field.

If, however, all farmers have the freedom to dig another well that happens to be deeper than neighboring wells, at some point even the deepest well cannot yield enough water for the expensive center pivot.

In this case it is not the cost of pumping, the quality of the groundwater, the value of the cropland or the quantity of yield that is the constraint. It is that no water exists, and therefore there is no technological answer to this loss of a resource – thus, it is the tragedy of the commons.

Rule of law and governance enter the discussion. One cannot, or at least I do not think we can, separate the physical environment (water and where it is) from the human environment (farmers with irrigation systems and cropfields to irrigate).

We have man-made laws that limit the freedoms of farmers to completely follow the Manifest Destiny … the deliberate attainment of singular or individual good at the expense of others that, if used over a long enough time period, no one has access to the commons. The tipping point has been reached, and there is no answer to repair the commons, in spite of our willingness to try.

One great struggle today is the relationship between resource protection and economic development. If development can be done in a “sustainable” way, the use of input resources is mitigated, and the impact on the total resource moderates the level or degree of stress.

Examples: Installing an efficient sprinkler package of nozzles on the emitters of the pivot make good sense. So too are using weather data (forecasting) and soil moisture sensors (antecedent soil water), coupled into an irrigation scheduling program.

And then planting crops that have a lower water consumptive demand as a function of harvest yield. These are all technological solutions brought about by economics, yes, but also the forward-looking examination of the resource.

Is the commons sustainable for our generation and the next several? If not, what can we (humans) do to moderate or reduce the use load of the resource?

While rule of law and governance is in the realm of political sciences, the realm of the moral contribution is not. We know that all commons are finite, with the exception of solar radiation.

The heat units that arrive as photons are the source of all energy and therefore drive the entire conversion of inorganic carbon into organic carbon.

Photosynthesis is easily the most important chemical reaction on our planet’s surface (the biosphere). But our hugely valuable resources, productive soils and fresh water for crop growth are finite.

The great global discussions today are about three commons: productive soils, fresh water and land use. In the context of food and fiber production in the coming decades, many scientists and engineers are claiming a near tipping point for one or more of these resources in the coming decades for specific regions of the world.

Case in point: Nearly one-third of the world’s population lives in Southeast Asia – Pakistan to the west, India in the center and on the east side, China. All have limited arable land due to salinity, sodicity, lower soil fertility and lack of modern technology.

All have unsustainable water use, especially India. All have changing land use as to what limited farmland is available is next to surface water, and this is where people choose to live.

The next couple of decades will be ones nearing the tragedy of these three commons. Yet couple together whatever technological answers we may find with increasing population, and we near the tragedy this much sooner.

The consequence of adding 80 million new people every year on this planet, given the additional stress on the commons, and especially if the stress is centered in a region of the world that has been stressed for some time now, and we have a quicker rate of reaching the tragedy.

Hardin makes the case for a “fundamental extension in morality.” Defined, it is that before a tipping point is reached, and we have some technological solutions still available, then we are morally obliged to change our human values.

As I have written many times in these columns, the examination of a society that makes our civilization productive, healthy and sustainable must include an examination of the human values we hold dear, and not just the physical environment.

I suggest that for this very reason, scientists and engineers are well-served by having a cohort or companion trained in the humanities. Understanding the moral dimension within those of us charged with care and use of resources that are the commons, is enormously valuable to the Manifest Destiny embedded within us.

The great struggles today over resources are as much moral and ethical as they are technological. I often think about a world where we agricultural scientists could be coupled together with a rural sociologist.

Or perhaps it is in the realm of religion to adopt a new approach from the pulpit … to help us all understand the concepts of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” To help us understand that the tipping point is, by definition, when further technological answers cannot repair the commons.

Perhaps the answer is adjusting our Manifest Destiny to include the well-being of our commons extended into the future many generations forward. Yes, this may be an examination of our level of freedom or free will, in that: Is this introspective (individual) or one that is based on a shared destiny (society)?

Answering this, our religious leaders, philosophers, poets and writers will have to shift the focus toward the common man from the individual man.

Many have already made this shift. From the perspective of the commons, perhaps it is that humankind itself is a commons that we should be thinking about. For to do otherwise is a tragedy of epic proportions.

We have the moral obligation to deeply think about our resources as commons, and our own Manifest Destiny as the courses of action we take as humans, collectively as a society, to protect these commons … including the very one we all belong to. PD


Mike Gangwer
Agricultural Scientist