SUVs and The Tragedy of the Commons

Sport Utility Vehicles are a classic example of the basic paradigm of environmental destruction, The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin. This is a complex theory, so I shall attempt to explain it as simply as possible.

There are many shared resources in our society, for example, the air and water. Hardin uses the example of a grazing field, a “Commons” as was frequently used in the early days of Pre-Revolutionary America. Farmers would each have a small amount of livestock, and shared the Commons to graze them. The Commons served the public equally, and all were entitled to take from it equally.

Let us hypothesize ten farmers, each has 10 sheep. Each farmer benefits equally from grazing their sheep on the Commons. Each makes a profit from shearing the sheep at the end of the year, let’s call it 10 bales of wool.

So one day, a greedy farmer decides he could make more profit from adding another sheep. Now he has 11 sheep and all the other farmers have 10. At the end of the year, he has 11 bales of wool, a 10% increase in profit over all the other farmers. The increased environmental impact of 101 sheep grazing is negligible as opposed to 100 sheep. Yet the Commons is a finite resource, and has a limit to how many sheep it can support without collapsing from overgrazing. For the sake of argument, let’s set it at 150 sheep.

Now it’s next year, and the other farmers see the new wealth created by the 11th sheep. So they all go out and buy another sheep for themselves. Now there are 110 sheep on the Commons. This is still well within the capacity of the Commons, with more capacity remaining. Nobody knows they are set on the path to destruction, they all believe they are on the path to riches.

Over the next 4 years, each farmer adds another sheep to their flock each year. The Commons system gives each farmer an economic incentive to add more sheep. But now there are 150 sheep. The field is overgrazed, and during the heat of the summer, the grass withers and provides insufficient food for the sheep. The Commons has collapsed, and all the sheep die of starvation. This is the Tragedy of the Commons. Any unregulated shared resource carries a built-in economic incentive to drive it to destruction.

Let’s analyze the SUV’s impact in the light of the Commons paradigm. One of the main reasons people buy SUVs is that they offer improved safety to their passengers in a crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released statistics clearly showing that SUVs are a greater threat to other drivers than passenger vehicles.


NHTSA crash statistics demonstrate that, in side impact crashes, LTVs are more injurious as a striking vehicle than are passenger cars. For example, when LTVs strike passenger cars on the left side, the risk of death to the car driver can be 30 times higher than the risk to the LTV occupant. This compares to a driver fatality ratio of 6.6 to 1 in car-to-car left side impact crashes.

In this example, Highway Safety is the Commons, our shared resource. The SUV owner has increased his safety, by increasing the risk to other drivers. The incremental cost, the increase of safety risks to all drivers from one SUV is negligible. But normal automobile drivers see the SUV, and they realize they are less safe when driving next to SUVs. Now they must buy an SUV to keep the same level of safety as before, when everyone was driving smaller vehicles. Soon the highway is filled with SUVs, normal passenger cars are no longer safe to drive. Our common resource, safety, has collapsed.

SUVs are a curse upon society, a symbol of greed and selfishness. There was no more classic example than what I encountered today. I was rushing to the local pharmacy to pick up some medicine before they closed, the only parking spot was blocked by an SUV that took up two spots. I could not find another parking spot. I waited for the driver to return. She leisurely strapped her kids into the car, taking her time before departing. The pharmacy closed before she left and I was able to park. Such selfishness. This is what I call “Yuppie Syndrome.” People somehow believe that their time is more valuable than anyone elses, and that they have the right to do whatever they goddam well please, despite any inconveniences they cause to others. Excuse me, this is America, where all people are equal, and my need for that parking spot is equal to yours. You have no right to more than your fair share of our common resources. And you sure as hell don’t have any right to deprive other people of resources in the process of taking more than your fair share.

2 thoughts on “SUVs and The Tragedy of the Commons”

  1. For you to stereotype SUV drivers as you have is absolutely insane. I happen to drive a large SUV as well as many of my close friends and families. Did I buy my vehicle because it is safe? Yes, but that is not the only reason. There are many occasions when I need to transport five or more people at a time. This is the more efficient and safe vehicle I have found for doing so. And when I am driving, I am extremely courtious and do not think I can do whatever I goddam well please. I follow the rules just like everyone else should. Instead of rushing to the pharmacy, I guess you should have maybe been more organized and planned ahead so that you would have had plenty of time to get your prescription. To me, it sounds as if you have a whole lot of anger issues. Oh, and did you happen to be in the SUV when the mother was strapping her kids into the vehicle leisurely? I know when I strap my kids in, I take my time to make sure the belts are placed properly with sufficient tension and they also have everything they will need for departure to our next destination (milk, snacks, coloring books, etc.). If I needed to het these things when I am driving, that would take my focus off of the road and jeapordize our safety.

  2. By your own comments, you have proven to me that SUV drivers are all the same. You all go to extreme lengths to justify your purchase of a dangerous, inefficient, high pollution vehicle with lame excuses like “I have to haul around lots of kids.” Before there was any such thing as an SUV, people seemed to get by just fine with Station Wagons.
    BTW, recent studies have shown that the more passengers you put in an SUV, the higher the center of gravity, increasing rollovers.

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