As kids at camp we were taught to leave the forest as we found it for the next person to enjoy. It was a simple lesson about conservation and responsible stewardship of a valuable shared resource. Today that lesson applies to the air we breathe, the oil we use to heat our homes and the fish in our oceans. It also applies to another vital shared resource we don’t often stop to consider, but are at risk of overusing and depleting all the same – antibiotic effectiveness.

The discovery of penicillin in 1941 gave doctors the power to cure potentially lethal bacterial infections with a single drug. But over-use of antibiotics has led to the emergence of “super-bugs” that are impervious to any drug assault. One by one, the drugs we’ve relied on for so long are becoming useless in the fight against bacteria. If we don’t start treating antibiotics as a valuable resource — one that we all depend on at one time or another — we will soon see the end of the era of relatively easy cures.

In 1968, Garret Hardin called the inabilitiy to share such resources the “tragedy of the commons,” because as people respond to natural incentives to exploit a resource that is shared freely with others, overuse ultimately ruins the resource. Without proper management, open access resources can become a free-for-all where individuals benefit from taking as much as they can while leaving the costs of depletion for others. A shared resource framework helps us understand antibiotic resistance and suggests an incentive-based approach to conserving antibiotic effectiveness. It’s not just a metaphor; the concept can help shape incentive-altering strategies that encourage drug companies to develop new antibiotics, and patients, doctors, and hospitals to use existing antibiotics sustainably.