Common Resources

Do you think about all the resources you use every day? The computer programs you use, the Wi-Fi signal you tap into, the fabric of your clothes, the air you breathe, and the sewage service are all types of resources at our disposal. They are all resources made available to us, but they are all different types of resources. Most of the time, we go through life without even thinking about the resources we are consuming because our use of them is either subtle or matter of fact second nature. The four types of resources are: private goods, artificially scarce goods, public goods, and common resources. In this article, you will find out whether there are any common resources that you use, and how your usage affects the amount of those resources available to others. Ready to dive in? Keep scrolling!

Common Resources Common Resources

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Table of contents

    Common Resources Meaning

    The meaning of common resources is that they are resources that are accessible to everyone but cannot be consumed by everyone at the same time. You cannot prevent others from using a resource, and as they use it, less of it becomes available to you. Common resources are also known as commons.

    Common resources are non-excludable goods, which means that no one can be prevented from using them. Many natural resources are considered non-excludable goods because there is no way of preventing others from using goods such as air or water from a river. An excludable good would be good that others can be prevented from using, such as airplanes, restaurants, or anything that requires payment or exchange to use.

    Common resources are also considered rival in consumption, meaning if they are used by one party, another party cannot use them. Food, clothing, and even a chair can all only be used by one person at a time. A good that is nonrival in consumption is the sewage system installed in the community. Everyone can use it, and multiple people can use it at the same time.

    Common resources definition

    Common resources (commons) are resources that are accessible to everyone but cannot be used by everyone at the same time. They are non-excludable goods that are rival in consumption.

    Common resources can be thought of in terms of units. Everyone being able to access a unit is what makes it non-excludable. No one else being able to use the unit at the same time makes it rival in consumption. No two people can drink the same molecule of water or breathe in the same air molecules.

    Common Resources Examples

    Common resource examples include:

    • Fisheries: Fish stocks in the oceans are a common resource, as they are owned by no one but are available for use by many.
    • Forests: Forests are often owned by governments, but their use is available to many, including for logging, hunting, and recreation.
    • Air: The atmosphere is a common resource that is available to all living beings on Earth.
    • Public parks: Public parks are commons that are available for everyone to enjoy.
    • Water resources: Rivers, lakes, and aquifers are common resources that are used for drinking, irrigation, and industry.

    These are all resources that are not exclusively owned by any one person. Public land is owned by the government, so no one can just come and lay claim to it. There is not one person or group of people that can prevent others from accessing it unless the government as a whole decides to sell the land or make it illegal for public use. Forests and lakes are much the same, where they are not owned by any one person. Of course, people can own pastures, forests, and lakes and can use the land as they wish for the most part, but then it would be a private good.

    Learn more in our article - Public and Private Goods.

    Public land

    Public land is a natural resource that everyone in the United States can use. They can use it for hunting, as a pasture to graze their livestock or to go hiking and camping. Public land is considered a common resource because it is non-excludable since everyone is allowed to go onto it without being considered trespassers.

    However, if one rancher is grazing their cattle on a 10-acre portion of it, then these 10 acres cannot be used by another rancher to also graze their herd or a hunter to hunt any game. This makes it rival in consumption.

    Any deer, elk, birds, etc., that are harvested by one hunter or trapper can no longer be consumed by another. This forces the other hunters to either hunt another animal or to wait until the next season naturally replenishes the stock.

    Common Resources Cattle grazing StudySmarterFig. 1 - Cattle grazing on public land

    Forests

    Forests are an interesting common resource since most countries have placed some sort of regulation on who can log the trees. Historically, especially when the United States was in its infancy, lumber was free for all as long as you had the tools and the strength to harvest it and transport it to where you wanted it to go. Back then it was more of a public forest. Now, unless you are only cutting down firewood for personal use or as a Christmas tree, the United States government no longer allows private citizens to cut down trees, and even then you need a permit.

    Public forests are an example of common resources because the trees in the forest do not belong to one single person. When you cut it down and build a house with it or chop it for firewood, no one else can build their house with it or burn it in their fireplace.

    Fisheries

    The fishing industry is both domestic and international. Here, unlike public lands and forests, the resource can cross borders and go wherever it pleases. This means that countries have to coordinate their policies to regulate the industry to prevent conflict.

    Fishing is an example of a common resource because the stock of fish in the ocean is a part of natural biodiversity and does not belong to any single person. The fish can be caught by whoever goes out fishing to catch it, not limited to any one person, making it a non-excludable resource. The fish are rival in consumption resources because once the fish is caught, it reduces the amount of fish available to everybody else.

    Common Resources.Fishing Vessels.StudySmarterFig. 2 - Fishing vessels

    Characteristics of Common Resources

    Characteristics of common resources are that they are nonexcludable and rival in consumption. Common resources are often but are not limited to, natural resources, like having a variety of animals and plants (biodiversity), clean air, and water. These two characteristics can pose issues for the resource itself because many people want to use them but they cannot all use them at the same time. As a result, they are often faced with overuse and become subject to regulation so that they are preserved.

    Excludability

    Goods can typically be classified as excludable or nonexcludable. If a good is excludable it means that some people can be prevented from using this good. Whoever supplies the good can prevent people who do not pay for the good from accessing it or using it. Common resources are non-excludable resources. This means that anyone can use them, so no one can be excluded from using them. This is important because for some resources, it is nearly impossible to regulate their use and some people might not be able to afford to partake. If all roads were to become an excludable resource then those who could not afford to pay to use them would suffer, especially if there is no alternative.

    Rival in consumption

    Common resources are considered rival in consumption because only one unit can be used by one person at a time. A resource is nonrival in consumption when it can be used by multiple people at the same time such as the internet or the public sanitation system. Common resources cannot be used by multiple people at once, which makes them scarce the more people use them. A road is rival in consumption because there no one can be in the same spot as you on the road without causing an accident. The more cars are on the road the scarcer the resource becomes because not every car and bicycle fits on the road at the same time.

    Types of resources

    Table 1 below will help you gauge where the common resources sit compared to other types of resources based on their characteristics.


    Types of ResourcesRival in ConsumptionNonrival in Consumption
    Excludable ResourcesPrivate Goods
    • Clothing
    • Airplane Rides
    Artificially Scarce Goods
    • Subscription-based Entertainment
    • Computer Software
    Nonexcludable ResourcesCommon Resources
    • Wild Game
    • Water in a River
    Public Goods
    • Public Sanitation
    • Law Enforcement

    Table 1. Types of Resources - StudySmarter

    To learn more about public goods, read our explanation - Public Goods

    Tragedy of the Commons

    The tragedy of the commons refers to the phenomenon where common resources are depleted because everyone who had access to the resource used it in their own self-interest, resulting in it being overused and depleted for everyone else.

    You can read more about it in our explanation on Tragedy of the Commons!

    When a pasture is available for shepherds to graze their flocks of sheep, they all want their own sheep to have the best grass so that they can grow the best wool to earn the maximal payout. Every shepherd will find the best patch of grass and have their sheep graze as much as they can. Then they will move on to the next best patch and so on. If all the shepherds with access to these pastures do this, there is a steady increase in use until the pastures can no longer replenish themselves in a current season. Now, there is little grass left and no one else can graze their sheep anymore because there is nothing left. The common resource had been overused.

    The tragedy of the commons refers to the phenomenon where common resources are depleted because everyone who had access to the resource used it in their own self-interest, resulting in it being overused.

    Overuse occurs when a common resource is depleted because consumers ignore the fact that their use is diminishing the resource that remains for others.

    Solutions to overuse of a common resource

    Common resources are often subject to regulation to prevent them from being overrun and depleted. In the case of overfishing, governments set quotas and seasonal limits on fishermen to ensure that they do not overfish an area or a population. In the logging industry, you must hold specific permits to be allowed to log the land and then only certain tracts and species of trees. National and state parks are big tourist attractions that can cause wear and tear on these areas and cause them to be overrun. To mitigate this, regulators put in place entrance fees and maximum capacity laws which serve to protect the parks and generate revenue for their maintenance. Another common approach is to privatize the common resource. If a resource is privatized it stands under the protection of whoever owns it and it is up to them to make sure the resource remains viable.

    Types of Commons

    Common resources can be categorized into types in several ways, considering the origin of the resource (man-made and natural), renewability (renewable and non-renewable), and level of governance (from local to international).

    1. Man-made common resources would be irrigation systems, wells, artificial ponds, roads, parking spaces, and boat ramps. Man-made resources are usually created and maintained by the government which means they can be produced over time and are not as finite as naturally occurring resources.
    2. Natural common resources are things like rivers, pastures, forests, wild game, and fishing. Naturally occurring resources like forests take much longer to replenish, even with the replanting of trees after the land has been logged.
    3. Renewable common resources: These are resources that can be replenished naturally over time, such as forests, fisheries, and freshwater.
    4. Non-renewable common resources: These are resources that cannot be replenished, such as fossil fuels and minerals.
    5. Local common resources: These are resources that are managed and used by local communities, such as community gardens and neighborhood parks.
    6. National common resources: These are resources that are managed and used by a country as a whole, such as national parks and fisheries.
    7. International common resources: These are resources that are shared by multiple countries and require international cooperation and regulations to manage, such as oceans and the atmosphere.

    Common Resources - Key Takeaways

    • Common access resources are resources that are accessible to everyone but cannot be used by everyone at the same time.
    • Common resources are non-excludable goods, which means that no one can be prevented from using them. They are also considered rival in consumption, meaning if it is used by one party, another cannot use them.
    • Common resources can be categorized into types in several ways, considering the origin of the resource (man-made and natural), renewability (renewable and non-renewable), and level of governance (from local to international).
    • The tragedy of the commons is when common resources are depleted because everyone who had access to the resource used it in their own self-interest, resulting in it being overused, and depleted for everyone else.
    • Solutions to the problem of overuse of common resources are: quotas, seasonal limits, permits, and privatization.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Common Resources

    What are common resources?

    Common resources are goods that are accessible to everyone but cannot be used by everyone at the same time. They are a nonexcludable good that is rival in consumption. 

    What are the characteristics of common resources?

    The characteristics of common resources are that they are nonexcludable and that they are rival in consumption.

    What are examples of common resources?

    Examples of common resources are: public lands, public forests, clean air, and water.

    What are types of common resources?

    Types of common resources are man-made ones like roads, parking spaces, and irrigation systems. Another type is natural ones like rivers, forests, and pastures.

    What is the tragedy of the commons?

    The tragedy of the commons is when common resources are depleted because everyone who had access to the resource used it in their own self-interest, resulting in it being overused.

    What is the difference between public goods and common resources?

    The key difference between public goods and common resources is that public goods are non-rivalrous, meaning that one person's use of the good does not diminish its availability to others, while common resources are rivalrous, meaning that one person's use of the resource reduces its availability to others.


    However, public goods and common resources are both types of goods that are non-excludable, meaning that no one can be prevented from using them.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is the difference between a common resource and a public good?

    You ________ prevent others from using a common resource and as they use it, _____ of it becomes available to you.

    Many natural resources are considered ______________ goods because there is no way of preventing others from using goods such as air or water from a river.

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