Tragedy of the Commons

Think of a town that has only one lake. In the lake, there are only a hundred fish and two fishermen. The two fishermen catch some fish and allow other fish to reproduce; that way, the number of fish grows in the lake. However, after some time, other people begin fishing too. The town is running out of fish. Everyone's trying to catch as many fish as possible before no fish are left. After some time, there are no fish left in the lake. This is the tragedy of the commons.

Tragedy of the Commons Tragedy of the Commons

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    In this article, we'll explore the definition of the tragedy of the commons in economics and examine its causes. We will not stop there and give you some real-world examples of the tragedy of the commons as well as solutions to this problem. Get ready to learn how we can make a difference in preserving our shared resources for future generations.

    The Tragedy of the Commons Definition

    In economics, the tragedy of the commons is when people share a common resource, like a field or a lake, but each individual has their own self-interest and overuses or exploits the resource, ultimately leading to its depletion or destruction. This happens because no one person is solely responsible for the resource, and there are no clear rules or regulations in place to manage it.

    The tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individuals, acting in their own self-interest, use a shared resource in a way that depletes or damages it, leading to a decline in the resource's quality or availability for future generations.

    Imagine a village where all the inhabitants are sheep farmers, and the land is communally owned. At first, the shared land provides enough resources to support everyone's sheep. However, as the population grows, so does the number of sheep, leading to overgrazing and a depletion of the land. Despite the shared ownership, each farmer acts in their own self-interest and tries to maximize their profits, leading to the tragedy of the commons. Eventually, the land becomes barren, and the villagers lose their main source of income.

    Garret Hardin "The Tragedy of the Commons"

    Garrett Hardin was an American ecologist, author, and professor of biology, who is best known for his 1968 paper titled "The Tragedy of the Commons." In the paper, Hardin introduced the concept of the tragedy of the commons as a metaphor for the depletion of shared resources due to individual self-interest. The paper became widely influential and has since become a classic in ecology, economics, and political science.

    The Tragedy of the Commons Examples

    The most known examples of the tragedy of the commons are: overfishing, deforestation and water scarcity.

    Let's take a look at those examples in more detail:

    • Overfishing in the world's oceans: The tragedy of the commons is seen in the overfishing of all oceans in the world, where fishermen compete to catch as many fish as possible without considering the long-term sustainability of the fish population. This has led to a decline in fish stocks and a threat to the livelihoods of coastal communities.3
    • Deforestation in the Amazon: The Amazon rainforest is a shared resource that provides essential ecosystem services to the world, such as carbon sequestration and oxygen production. However, the tragedy of the commons is evident in the widespread deforestation of the Amazon due to logging, agriculture, and other forms of land use. 4
    • Water scarcity in the United States: Groundwater is a shared resource used for irrigation, drinking water, and industrial purposes. However, the overuse and mismanagement of groundwater have led to a decline in water levels, 50 billion gallons of groundwater are consumed in the U.S daily, and it is not being replenished.1

    The Tragedy of the Commons Causes

    One of the leading causes of the tragedy of the commons is individuals or companies acting in their own self-interest and expecting others to behave in the same manner.

    Imagine there are 300 fish in the lake, and only five fishermen are using the lake. The lake is a resource that the local population shares, yet there are no regulations regarding its use. Five fishermen see that other individuals are successful in capturing fish while they are using the lake.

    Motivated to protect their interests, they are committed to collecting as many fish as possible to stop others from taking all available fish. They know that if the other people in the community catch enough fish, there won't be any fish left for them. Therefore, in an endless loop, each fisherman strives to capture as many fish as possible for himself.

    This race between fishermen and other individuals causes the fish stock to deplete as there isn't enough time for the fish to regenerate.

    Another cause of the tragedy of the commons is the unregulated use of commonly held resources. If the government does not regulate and clearly define how common resource consumption will occur, it will lead to resources experiencing the tragedy of the commons.

    Solutions to Tragedy of the Commons

    There are two general types of solutions to the tragedy of the commons: legislative solutions and collective solutions.

    Legislative Solutions to Tragedy of the Commons

    Legislative solutions involve the use of laws, regulations, and policies to prevent or mitigate the overuse and depletion of common resources. This can include establishing property rights, such as assigning ownership or usage rights to individuals or groups and setting quotas or limits on resource usage. For example, governments can create regulations on fishing quotas to prevent overfishing in the ocean or establish national parks to preserve natural resources.

    Legislative solutions may be more appropriate for easily defined and quantified resources, such as fishing quotas or carbon emissions.

    For instance, government regulation may limit the number of cattle that can graze on public lands and the amount of fish that can be caught.

    The government should allocate a specific budget that contributes towards the conservation and regeneration of the resource. This can help prevent the resource from being depleted.

    Collective Solutions to Tragedy of the Commons

    Collective solutions involve the cooperation and collective action of individuals or groups to manage and conserve common resources. This can include creating community-based organizations, such as user groups or cooperatives, which regulate resource use and allocate usage rights among members. It can also involve the development of social norms and practices that encourage sustainable resource use, such as traditional conservation practices or environmentally-conscious behaviors.

    Collective solutions may be more effective for resources that are difficult to measure and manage, such as groundwater or forests.

    For example, in some rural communities in India, farmers collectively own and manage irrigation systems that provide water for their crops. They work together to maintain the systems and ensure water is used fairly and sustainably.

    The Tragedy of the Commons Summary

    To summarize, the tragedy of the commons occurs when people behave in their self-interest while having access to public resources, leading to the depletion of the resources. It happens when the demand for common resources exceeds the supply, leading to depletion. This depletion results in no one having access to the resources anymore. The tragedy of the commons shows that people are predisposed to act based on their interests, regardless of the unfavourable repercussions for others.

    In a tragedy of the commons setting, there is no incentive for any participant to invest in maintaining and ensuring that the resource reproduces. That's because even if one aims to consume the resources sustainably, others will continue to deplete them.

    However, not all resources or goods are prone to the tragedy of the commons. The resource should be scarce and non-excludable to cause a tragedy of the commons.

    The tragedy of the commons was first introduced by William Forster Lloyd in 1833 and popularized by Garret Hardin in 1968.


    Tragedy of the Commons - Key takeaways

    • The tragedy of the commons occurs when every person has an incentive to use a resource, yet doing so comes at the price of every other individual's use, and there is no means to prevent anybody from partaking in the consumption.
    • An example of the tragedy of the commons is groundwater in the United States.
    • One of the leading causes of the tragedy of the commons is individuals or companies acting in their own self-interest and expecting others to behave in the same manner.
    • There are many solutions to the tragedy of the commons, the main ones including legislative solutions and collective solutions.

    References

    1. USCG, Groundwater Decline and Depletion,https://www.usgs.gov/special-topics/water-science-school/science/groundwater-decline-and-depletion?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects
    2. PEW ,Pacific Bluefin Tuna Stock Remains Highly Depleted, New Science Shows ,https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2018/05/21/pacific-bluefin-tuna-stock-remains-highly-depleted-new-science-shows
    3. What is overfishing? Facts, Effects and Overfishing Solutions, WWF, https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/overfishing
    4. Constance Malleret , Record deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest shows challenge facing Lula, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/10/brazil-record-deforestation-amazon-rainforest-lula-bolsonaro
    Frequently Asked Questions about Tragedy of the Commons

    What are three main points of the tragedy of the commons?

    The main points behind the Tragedy of the Commons is that common resources will deplete as a result of each and every individual acting on their self-interest rather than considering the impacts on society. 


    All individuals participating in the consumption of the resource aim to consume as much of the resource as possible before other individuals manage to deplete the resource further.

    What is meant by the tragedy of the commons?

    The Tragedy of the Commons occurs when every person has an incentive to use a resource, yet doing so comes at the price of every other individual's use, and there is no means to prevent anybody from partaking in the consumption.

    What is the tragedy of the commons examples?

    An example of the Tragedy of the Commons is groundwater in the United States. Unmanaged groundwater is a depleting resource, and 50 billion gallons of groundwater are consumed in the U.S daily.

    Why does the tragedy of the commons occur?

    The tragedy of the commons occurs because individuals tend to prioritize their own interests over the common good, resulting in the overuse and degradation of the resource. 

    How does tragedy of the commons affect the environment?

    The Tragedy of the Commons causes natural resources to deplete.

    What is the tragedy of the commons and how can it be avoided?

    The Tragedy of the Commons occurs when every person has an incentive to use a resource, yet doing so comes at the price of every other individual's use, and there is no means to prevent anybody from partaking in the consumption.


    It can be avoided through government regulations or collective agreements.

    How is overfishing an example of tragedy of the commons?

    Overfishing is an example of the tragedy of the commons because as fishing technology and demand for fish increased, people caught fish at a faster rate than the fish could reproduce, causing the fish population to decline.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The Tragedy of the Commons _____ be prevented.

    The Tragedy of the Commons occurs when the _____ for common resources outweighs the _____, leading to the depletion of resources.

    The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a scenario in which people who have access to public resources (common resources) behave in their self-interest, eventually leading to the depletion of the resource.

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