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A Jewish Perspective on the “Tragedy of the Commons”

By Rabbi Akiva Wolff Tu b’Shevat is an appropriate time to reflect on our relationship to the natural world, and our responsibility to it. In 1968, in one of the seminal articles written on the subject of environment protection, Garrett Hardin assured himself a place in the annals of the environmental movement. His article, titled The Tragedy of the Commons, became a ‘must-read’ for every budding environmentalist in the nation if not the world. The Tragedy of the Commons describes the ruination of a common pastureland, called the commons, by the herdsmen who share it. Each herdsman knows that for every additional animal he adds to his herd, he will recoup all the benefits, whereas the costs – in terms of pasturage for the animal and any damage to the commons caused by additional overgrazing – will be shared by everyone. Therefore, each herdsman tries to maximize the size of his herd, at the expense of everyone else. In Hardin’s words: “Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his […]

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