Is the Gulf Oil Spill (Almost) a Tragedy of the Commons?

The Deepwater Horizon spill may have stopped (or not) for now, but of course the horrendous affects will stay with us for years.  Now the fingers are pointed, the blame continues, and the arguments as to how to manage all of these resources will linger on and on.

“History repeats itself” is a cheap cliché that academics will tell you is not necessary true, but disasters, financial and environmental, do follow a familiar pattern.  Government agencies that are overwhelmed, understaffed, often unheard of—or all of the above—offer lax oversight, whether they are the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Minerals Management Service.  A huge mess develops.  People get hurt.  Voters get angry.  CEOs get called to Congress, where politicians give them an earful.  Laws become either rewritten or new ones are passed.  A generation later, we endure similar catastrophes again, partly due to lobbyists who get the legislative changes they need and businesses learn how to turn a tiny loophole into a massive entryway leading to resource exploitation.  Meanwhile, profits generally go to a select few, while the rest of us shoulder the costs through bailouts, massive cleanup, and a polluted environment.

The environmental writer and consultant Andy Mannle suggests that we are enduring another painful economic lesson called the tragedy of the commons.  The theory, which the ecologist Garret Hardin first espoused 40 years ago, hearkens back to 19th century English grazing pastures, or “commons.”  In a nutshell, herders allowed their cattle to nosh on the pastures’ grass to the point that what began as a simple, rational economic decision led to the depletion and ultimately destruction of the commons. According to the theory, it’s inevitable that common resources will be depleted. Rumor has it Tesco superstores have replaced these emaciated grazing pastures in England.

Many economists have gone to great lengths to dismiss Hardin’s theory.  After all, Hardin argued that a privatization of such resources would minimize the damage to publicly shared resources.  Many out there would probably cringe at the potential outcomes if we were to privatize our public lands, seashores, and oceans.  In fairness, Hardin also argued for solutions including a “polluter pays” policy as well as regulations—but those were already in place, right?

In the end, the Gulf spill is an exasperating lesson of what happens when we allow the extraction of resources for a small, concentrated private gain, but widespread shared public pain.  The solution could start with ending the lobbying in DC and state capitols that persuade legislators to allow for lax oversight and minimal accountability.  But more changes are needed.  Where do we begin?

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, Contact him at You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.