Confronting Hardin: Trends and Approaches to the Commons in Historiography

Giacomo Bonan


This Article analyses both the role of historiography in Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons (1968) and his paper’s impact on historiographical debates of the last five decades. Concerning the role of historiography in Hardin’s argument, the ‘tragedy of the commons’ itself derived from a pamphlet written by a nineteenth century supporter of English enclosures, who proposed a variant of Malthus’ theory. If Hardin inevitably dealt with previous historical interpretations of the commons, the reverberations aroused by his paper have strongly influenced subsequent historical research on this subject. It is possible to group the historiographical production of the last decades concerning the commons into three main lines of research. The first line has developed in the field of economic history and has been influenced by Elinor Ostrom’s principles for long-enduring institutions that efficaciously manage commons. The second line has focused on the conflicts caused by exogenous interferences in the management of common land, such as state or market intervention, and their social and environmental consequences. The third line has devoted attention to the role of common lands in the internal dynamics of the local communities and the conflicts over their use at the local level. The conclusion of this Article focuses on the role of Hardin’s legacy in the current debate on the global environmental crisis.

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