Journal article: Tragedy revisited (Science)


by PIM

In December 1968, Science published an essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” by an ecologist and microbiologist Garrett Hardin. In this now-famous paper, Hardin questioned society’s ability to manage shared resources, concluding that individuals will act in their self-interest and ultimately spoil the resource (“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”). To mark the 50th anniversary of the publication, Science invited a group of experts to share some contemporary views on the topic. The new piece, called “Tragedy revisited” (Science 362(6420): 1236-1241), includes seven perspectives: Collective actions, cultural norms; Playing games in a common pool; Revealing historical resilience; Couple issues to address conflict; An ocean of opportunity; Common knowledge; and The antimicrobial commons.

Residents of a community in Andhra Pradesh, India, participate in an experimental game with various scenarios for crop irrigation and groundwater use. Photo: Julia Shuck/IFPRI

In the “Playing games in a common pool”, Ruth Meinzen-Dick, senior research fellow at IFPRI and co-leaders of PIM’s Flagship 5: Governance of Natural Resources, discusses how behavioral experiments, or games, could be used to help people cooperate to sustainably manage water, a classic common pool resource.

“Behavioral experiments, originally designed as games simulating commons dilemmas in the laboratories, have been adapted to be played with real commoners in the field. These games have shown the importance of communication, repeated interactions, information, and perceived fairness of the distribution of costs and benefits in influencing collective action. We are testing whether these games could be adapted from a research instrument to a tool that can also help water users understand the trade-offs and potential value of cooperation. In our groundwater game, players choose between crops with different water consumption and profitability and see the simulated effects on aquifer sustainability, showing that short-term profits by some come at long-term costs borne by all. In India, sites where this game was played were significantly more likely to adopt rules governing groundwater use, compared with control communities (11).”


The research for the study “Playing games to save water: Collective action games for groundwater management in Andhra Pradesh, India” (World Development, 2018) by Meinzen-Dick et al cited in the excerpt above was undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). Additional support was provided by the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM). Authors thank all donors who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.

Related links:

Project: Experimental Games for Strengthening Collective Action: Learning from Field Experiments in India and Colombia