December 12, 2018

Tragedy of the Commons, 50 Years On


Fifty years ago, a professor of biology at UC Santa Barbara named Garrett Hardin published an essay in Science magazine called “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

In his essay, Hardin invites us to consider a pasture shared by numerous herdsmen as a commons. Each herdsman grazes as many cattle as possible in this shared space to maximize the benefit to him and his family, but the numbers are kept in check by disease, poaching, disputes and so forth. At some point, the “rational herdsman” decides to add one more cow to the pasture. The benefits of the additional cow accrue to him, but the costs — the additional grazing on a pasture limited in size and natural resources — are shared by all, so they seem minimal. Soon each herdsman does the same, wanting to increase his income while the degradation to the pasture is only slight. Eventually, however, the ability of the pasture to support many more cows — the carrying capacity of the land — is exceeded and the “commons” is ruined. Today we see this dynamic at work in a variety of different settings — with overgrazing of federal grasslands, overfishing of the seas, depletion of aquifers loss of nutrients in our soils. 

The world population when Garrett Hardin wrote his essay was 3.5 billion people. Today it is 7.6 billion. Yet many of the earth’s essential resources are finite and we are exceeding the carrying capacity of Planet Earth. Hence the tragedy of Hardin’s title.

Why do I mention this now, 50 years since Hardin published his essay? Because the Great Lakes are our commons. 

Millions of us — Canadians and Americans alike — share in their bounty. Indeed, our lives are utterly dependent on freshwater — for drinking, for industry, to support the plants and animals that provide us with food and shelter. Happily, we are coming to recognize that not only do we depend on the lakes, but that they depend on us. We are the stewards of this precious resource and, vast as they are, they are not inexhaustible. They are not eternally resilient.

Consider this: When we use fertilizer containing ammonia and nitrates on our lawns, when we apply herbicides and pesticides to our gardens, when we pour oil down a street drain or flush medicines down the toilet, we are adding that additional cow to the finite pasture. We are adding pollution to our lakes and streams.

In fact, the founding story of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District was to protect Lake Michigan from pollution — human and animal waste. The magnificent enterprise of digging a canal to reverse a river to protect drinking water in this great lake stands as a testament to human ingenuity and drive. And it has worked! Today Chicago and Cook County have a reliable, safe, and abundant source of fresh water to sustain us and our industry and the Chicago waterways are increasingly viewed — and used — as an amenity enhancing quality of life, increasing property values, providing recreational opportunities and attracting visitors both human and avian. 

Yet threats to the health of our ecosystem remain and in some ways are more worrisome than ever before. The problem with pollution today is much more diffuse than plugging the end of a few remaining industrial pipes and smokestacks. Enticing new consumer products are developed and marketed with little transparency about their impact on the quality of our water, land and air. Most of us want to leave a light footprint on the planet, but it’s not easy to calculate the convenience/environmental cost benefit of the many decisions we make every day. The problem today is us, the way we live and the products we buy. 

Fifty years ago, no one knew or could even envision the problems of microbeads or PFAs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), of invasive species and lead pipes.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) can and must take the lead in addressing issues of water quality and water quantity. We are experiencing more intense rainstorms that overwhelm the capacity of our aging infrastructure to deal with them. MWRD can and must take the lead in managing stormwater to assist in making our region resilient in the face of climate change. Fortunately, we can change the culture and signs of progress are all around us. 

A couple of months ago, I was at a conference on water reuse in Austin, Texas attended by droves of people from water-scarce regions. Enterprising wastewater agencies in Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and Texas are providing wastewater treated to a high level of quality high enough to brew beer. Clean Water Services out of Portland provided tastings and here’s their messaging:

All water has been consumed before and will be consumed again. The water you drink is more than 4.6 billion years old. And, all water aspires to be beer.

Okay, that last line is funny and climate change is decidedly not funny. Here’s my pledge to you: I will endeavor to work on climate change in this, my next term on the Board of the MWRD, with fierce attention, with humor, with unrelenting focus, and with joy in the worthiness of the task at hand. Let’s get going!


I recently was made aware of an online resource from, which provides inexpensive ways to lower your environmental impact. Please take a few moments to visit the site and learn how you can lessen your footprint on our precious resources, while still saving money.

It's the best of both worlds!