Tragedy of the Commons

flickr photo shared by Frits Ahlefeldt, under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license


“Tragedy of the commons”, is a term coined by William Forster Lloyd and used by Garret Hardin in his widely cited essay. The concept refers to the issue of public resource management: it advocates that the collective use of resources as a rule threatens the collective good, most notably in terms of the environment. In his paper he cited the example of ‘overgrazing’ of common land. The farmers have their own cattle and a common patch of land, they allow their animals to graze as needed, and since the land belongs to nobody, nobody is obligated to maintain it or consider long term sustainability. In the absence of cooperation and an overall strategic management plan, this eventually results in overgrazing the land. Hardin sums up the essence of the issue: “If all members in a group used common resources for their own gain and with no regard for others, all resources would still eventually be depleted”.

However, one must not fail to recognise the potential benefits of cooperation and communal ownership, and often communal resource management can be more effective that public or private management. Elinor Ostrom in 2009 received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her groundbreaking research proving that ordinary people are capable of managing shared resources fairly and sustainably through collective agreements and the establishment of common institutions.

The reason for this is the knowledge of local residents about their environment, and the fact that their connection to the land increases their motivation to protect, and preserve it. With trust, communication and cooperation the farmers from Hardin's example could agree upon a certain level of grazing or setting ‘no grazing zones’ in order to allow the area to replenish.

Ultimately, common resources require proper management in order to prevent exploitation resulting in the depletion of natural resources. This issue has become of critical importance with exponential global population growth and touches upon management of water, forests, fish, non-renewable energy, transport congestion, etc. There are a number of ways we, people, can manage and regulate the natural resources and all of them have their pros and cons. Some believe that privatisation is the most effective way of managing natural resources; however this is highly contested as this often results in high costs and therefore high prices for public use while the profit accumulates in the hands of the owner. Others are sure that governments can play a key role as they have a responsibility for the common good of the public. Nonetheless, one can see multiple examples when governments have permitted (or rather sold) the land or water resources for extractive economic activity. With globalisation the lines have been blurred between the public and private spheres merging into "political economy", resulting in the private sector having a major influence in world politics, owing to an overarching system based on capitalism. Therefore, it remains questionable if the depletion of natural resources refers to “the tragedy of the commons” or rather “the tragedy of the private”.

In this activity participants will gain an understanding of the principle of the tragedy of commons by taking part in a ‘fishing’ exercise in order to highlight the issues associated with sharing common resources and then to reflect on possible solutions to the dilemma.

Activity Type

Experiential/ group


40-50 minutes

Learning Outcomes

  • To understand the importance of resource management

  • To become aware of different strategies to manage resources sustainably

  • To deepen our awareness of the importance of cooperation and communication


Required Materials and Tools:

  • ‘Goldfish’

  • Plastic bowls

  • 1 pair of chopsticks or a straw for each participant

  • Paper, pens etc.

  • Printed spreadsheet for each participant

  • Something to represent money

Step-by-Step Instructions:

  1. Put the bowls on the floor to represent ponds, add 16 ‘fish’ into each bowl and ask 4 participants to stand around them.

  2. Inform the participants that the objective of the game is to harvest as many fish as you can without destroying the ocean [Allow 20 minutes for this part].

  3. Give the following instructions:

    1. Each one of you represents the parent of a family. You must catch enough fish for all of you to eat.

    2. There is a pond which you can fish from which accommodates 16 fish.

    3. Once a minute you will be given the opportunity to ‘go fishing’ and each time, you can take from 0 up to 4 fish from the lake.

    4. The participants cannot communicate while playing

  4. Once the round has finished, you will calculate each group’s score and record it on a sheet of paper according to the following rules;

    1. One fish = game over! It cannot sustain your family and you cannot fish the next year!

    2. Two fish = your family can eat and play the next round.

    3. More than 2 fish = you can eat one and sell the rest for profit!

    4. One fish = 10 Euros

  5. Lead participants through 5 rounds in total, filling in the score card.

  6. Inform the participants that the fish in the pond will reproduce once a minute. At the end of each minute your should add more fish accordingly to have 16 fish again.

  7. Participants should Keep the ‘fish’ they catch. When the group runs out of fish, the game is finished.

  8. The winner of the game is the group with the most fish at the end.

  9. After the first game invite participants to give brief feedback about their experience based on the reflection questions below [10 minutes].

  10. Carry out a second second game, repeating the same steps BUT, this time participants can communicate.

  11. Again, invite participants to share after the second round using the second set of questions.

Support Files

Spreadsheet for each participant



In order to facilitate reflection on the experience, gather the participants in the whole group and discuss the following questions, write down key insights on a flip chart for everyone to see [Allow 20 minutes for this step]:

  • Questions to answer after the first game:

    • Did anyone in your group take too many fish? How did that make you feel?

    • Did everyone try to take as many as possible? Why or why not?

    • Did anyone sacrifice the quantity of fish, for the good of the community? Why or why not?

  • Questions to answer after the second game:

    • How did the ability to communicate change the way you played the second round?

    • Is it possible to maximize the number of fish caught and the number of fish remaining in the pond at the same time?

    • Each fish is worth money. Why would it be better to have money than fish?

    • What are some natural resources that are common resources?

Instructions for Submission

Submit the key insights from the questions in the Reflection section. Instructions on how to upload photos and how to submit things in Moodle can be found here: Instructions on Submission&Uploading

Instructions for Assessment

Provide feedback to at least one participant that has done this activity. Instructions on providing feedback can be found here: Instructions on Feedback

Tried an activity? Give us feedback!

(There are no discussion topics yet in this forum)