What is the tragedy of the commons in environmentalism?

The tragedy of the commons is a theory thrown around in discussion about environmentalism, resources and equality. But what’s it all about? And why the spooky-sounding name? Listen on to find out what the tragedy of the commons is, examples from the environment and solutions. 

Just a warning that this episode may get you feeling extra motivated to limit your impact on the earth and reduce the amount of waste you produce. If so, I’d love for you to join my free Zero Waste in a Week email challenge. Sign up below:

What is the tragedy of the commons?

To sum up this theory best, I’m going to give you the Wikipedia definition. “In economic science, the tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individual users, who have open access to a resource… act independently according to their self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action.”

That was a bit of a complicated mouthful, I know. Basically, it’s saying that individuals use up resources shared by many to benefit themselves and in the end, everyone ends up suffering when it’s depleted. While it’s classified as an economic theory, most of the examples in the real world are about the depletion of natural resources against the common good. 

Where did the theory come from?

The tragedy of the commons theory was first introduced by British economics writer William Forster Lloyd in an essay he wrote in 1833. He used the example of over-use of a grazing field for animals, which is called a common in Britain. Lloyd referred to cattle grazers sharing common land on which they were each entitled to let their cows graze.

Lloyd theorised that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing could result. For each additional cow, a herder could receive additional individual benefits. Meanwhile, the whole group shared the resulting damage to the commons. If all grazers made this economic decision, each would each make more money in the short-term while the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of everyone in the long term.  

The general theory was underappreciated until American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin wrote about them in a 1968 issue of “Science” magazine. Hardin’s article was the start of the modern use of “Commons” to describe a shared resource owned by everyone. 

The tragedy of the commons examples

The “commons” refers to any naturally occurring resources that can be used and consumed by the public at large. The resources are not independently owned by any one individual or corporation. These include: 

  1. Wildlife 
  2. Fossil fuels
  3. Forests
  4. Precious metals
  5. The atmosphere
  6. The oceans

In the tragedy of the commons theory, individuals or groups such as businesses make use of these natural resources for their benefit. This is done without considering how their actions will affect others or create an impact on a global scale. Here are a few examples

Overfishing

The impact of overfishing harms fishermen most of all. Fish are a common resource that should be carefully balanced to ensure there is enough for the population, future generations and sea animals. Yet industrial fishing for corporate profits has fished some populations to extinction. When the fish population is decimated, fishermen are left without an income and a local food source. And many fish populations never recover.

Deforestation

Forest are the shared property of the common. Yet deforestation for wood and grazing animals depletes this natural resource. Trees cannot regrow as fast as they’re being chopped down resulting in a dwindling amount of trees, which are essential for capturing carbon, animal habitat and natural spaces. 

Carbon emissions 

The climate crisis is an almost perfect example of the Tragedy of the Commons in action. For centuries, companies and industries have burnt fossil fuels and polluted the environment and atmosphere. This has dangerously warned our planet. Yet fossil fuel emissions continue to grow despite grave warnings from the scientific community. Fossil fuel companies continue to pollute despite the known risks to make profits for their shareholders, to the detriment of the global population and future generations. 

Poaching

Many endangered animals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers have been hunted to near extinction due to the high prices their tusks, horns and furs can be sold illegally for. While the poacher may make some money for themselves, the extinction of the species is detrimental to himself and everyone. 

COVID-19 shortages

At the beginning of the pandemic, many shoppers resorted to panic-buying resulting in empty supermarket shelves. Toilet paper and dried goods were over-exploited by a few which affected the supply for many. 

The tragedy of the commons solutions

Ideally, governments at the local, state, national and international levels would define and manage shared resources to fairly distribute them and avoid exploitation. It’s a great solution on paper but is difficult to enforce in real life. At an international level, there is no overarching governing body that can prevent a country that chooses to act within its interest at the expense of the greater good. International agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol are examples of international regulation of pollution. 

Money tends to talk loudest in these situations. Countries can and often do impose trade embargoes on nations that are not acting in line with the greater good. On a more local level, governments can tax individuals to encourage behaviour that saves resources. For example, charging a toll on a freeway will encourage others to use public transport resulting in fewer emissions. 

There’s also a lot of evidence backing up community-led programs that empower local groups to act in accordance with the common good. This is often done through education, program funding and creating social movements. 

Eco Action Step

This week’s eco action is to join my free Zero Waste in a Week email challenge. Each day for the next week, you’ll receive an easy eco action step to take within your home or lifestyle to get you closer to zero waste. The challenge will help you overhaul everything from your grocery habits to your skincare routine in less than 20 minutes per day for just one week. 

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