Environmental Ethics

Volume 7, Issue 1, Spring 1985

Susan Jane Buck Cox
Pages 49-61

No Tragedy of the Commons

The historical antecedents of Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy ofthe commons” are generally understood to lie in the common grazing lands of medieval and post-medieval England. The concept of the commons current in medieval England is significantly different from the modem concept; the English common was not available to the general public but rather only to certain individuals who inherited or were granted the right to use it, and use of the common even by these people was not unregulated. The types and in some cases the numbers of animals each tenant could pasture were limited, based at least partly on a recognition of the limited carrying capacity of the land. The decline of the commons system was the result of a variety of actors having little to do with the system’s inherent worth. Among these factors were widespread abuse of the rules governing the commons, land “reforms” chiefly designed to increase the holdings of a few landowners, improved agricultural techniques, and the effects of the industrial revolution. Thus, the traditional commons system is not an example of an inherently flawed land-use policy, as is widely supposed, but of a policy which succeeded admirably in its time.

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