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Applying game theory to the “tragedy of the commons”

According to an article by Science Magazine, the “tragedy of the commons” is a situation in which one common resource is shared among multiple independent and rational individuals each seeking to maximize their own gain. The best interest of the group, which would be achieved by equal sharing of the common resource, conflicts with the best interest of each individual, which is to increase individual gain by consuming the resource. The gain of any one individual comes at a cost to all the others.1

Outer space is like international waters, unclaimed territory common to every nation and organization. As space exploration and satellite communication continue to expand, space debris accumulates in low-earth orbit. Although it is in the best interest of all those involved in utilizing this space to reduce the amount of debris, it is in the best interest of each individual to save their own time and money by waiting for another group to take on the burden of cleaning up this extraterrestrial pollution.

In the article “How to clean up space debris – using game theory,” the authors propose addressing this issue of a tragedy of the commons by applying game theory. They claim that a computer model could use game theory to evaluate strategies for space cleanup and predict the behavior of organizations in relation to their potential best responses to given scenarios.2 This assessment could then be used to develop policies which incentive organizations to take action, promoting long-term reduction in space debris.


  1. Hardin, Garrett. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162.3859 (1968): 1243-248.
  2. Tuyls, Karl. “How to Clean up Space Debris – Using Game Theory.” Astronomy and Space. N.p., 13 Nov. 2015.


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November 2015