The Tragedy of the Vital Commons

42 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2015

Date Written: March 6, 2015


The concept of the Tragedy of the Commons is well known, but it does not adequately capture the gravity of harm caused by the mismanagement of certain common pool resources (CPR). Not all commons are created equal; some are more important than others. If the common pasture where cows graze is overused and rendered barren, the community shifts to a vegan diet. But, if the groundwater aquifer used to grow soybeans and other foods is exhausted and no water remains for extraction, then individuals, families, and entire communities perish. Present commons scholarship is unable to differentiate between varying levels of importance among commons resources. I correct that problem by introducing the model of the Vital Commons. This is a type of CPR that is both vital to human existence and supports a massive population. The Earth’s atmosphere. Groundwater aquifer depletion. These are two examples of Vital Commons. Overuse of either creates a tragedy — but it appears like an apocalypse. The traditional response to tragic overuse of a commons is the creation of private property. Using this technique with a Vital Commons, however, makes things far worse and only expedites the coming catastrophe. Informal norms or principles of private ordering are also completely ineffective at sustaining the long-term health of a Vital Commons. Instead, the only answer to the tragedy of the Vital Commons is the wholesale removal of property rights to this essential and depleted resource.

Keywords: Property law, Property theory, Tragedy of the Commons, Common Pool Resources, Informal Norms, Law and Economics, Law and Society, Water Rights, Groundwater, Environmental Law

Suggested Citation

Pearl, M. Alexander, The Tragedy of the Vital Commons (March 6, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

M. Alexander Pearl (Contact Author)

Texas Tech University School of Law ( email )

1802 Hartford
Lubbock, TX 79409
United States
(806) 834-6865 (Phone)

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